Nietzsche, Part Two: Who am I?

ecce homo pic

In this Part Two I explore Nietzsche’s view of the self and compare it to the Buddhist view. I also examine what Nietzsche meant by freedom and what existential freedom can be for us today.

I should emphasise that Nietzsche is never prescriptive although his aphoristic style gives the impression that he is. I don’t have the same qualms about being non-prescriptive!

When I was a teenager – and perhaps being unsociable – my mother would often say to me, “Be yourself, Eric.” Needless to say this irritated me because I sensed an ulterior message of ‘be who I want you to be.’

Of course adolescence is the prime time to explore who we are. However, the question is far from straight-forward. Some people seem to arrive at their ‘identity’ as if there were a ready-made mould simply to be filled. They then spend the remainder of their lives reasonably content with their roles: teacher, lawyer, bus driver, builder, wife, husband and so on. Their role and the people they meet contribute to a ‘hardening’ of their character. No doubt many continue to grow psychologically and spiritually, but many others live out their lives ‘being someone else.’ (That is, living The Looking Glass Self – Charles Horton Cooley coined this term to express how the self is shaped by the reflected opinions of others around us.)

Eric Berne was among the first to describe how assigned roles can suffocate us and in the last 50yrs or so the burgeoning market of self-awareness courses and books has encouraged us to examine our identities and question our very thoughts and feelings in order to find out ‘who we are.’

Is it possible that Nietzsche was thinking along these lines? The sub-title of his Ecce Homo is the wonderfully pregnant aphoristic, Becoming Who You Are! And in Untimely Meditations this aphorism is even more to the point:

All that you are now, doing, thinking, desiring, is not you yourself. (my emphasise)

As we saw in Part One Nietzsche denies that there is a permanent, unchanging self – he seems to confirm David Hume’s insight that thoughts and feelings come and go independently of any agent. Buddhism has the same idea or rather, insight, with its anatta – here is a definition taken from a Buddhist Dictionary:

As applied to man it states that there is no permanent ego or self. . . which make up the personality. The Buddha, however, nowhere denied the existence of an ego, but taught that no permanent entity. . . can be found in any of the human faculties.

Here, for comparison is a longer quote from Nietzsche:

Owing to the phenomenon ‘thought’, the ego is taken for granted; but up to the present everybody believed. . . that there was something unconditionally certain in the notion ‘I think’, and that by analogy with our understanding of all other causal reactions this ‘I’ was the given cause of the thinking. However customary and indispensable this fiction may have become now, this fact proves nothing against the imaginary nature of its origin; it might be a life-preserving belief and still be false.

Will to Power; 483

And it is obvious that Nietzsche sees the individual as a ‘ community of selves,’ – and that the free spirit is aware of the multiplicity and harmonises the community. I think his ”will to power’ is the harmonising factor. Just one quote:

The highest man would have the highest multiplicity of drives in the relatively greatest strength that can be endured. Indeed, where the plant ‘human being’ shows itself strongest one finds instincts that conflict powerfully but are controlled.

Will to Power, 966

Some people, when they first come across this idea of ‘no-self’ (or the notion that they don’t originate their thoughts) begin to experience panic, as if they are going to somehow disappear or disintegrate. Of course it can be unsettling and that is all to the good. However, Buddhism is not saying the self is a complete illusion or that we should not act as if we were individual agents with free will. It is rather like the physicists’ description of reality consisting of indeterminate sub atomic particles in an endless energetic flux. We don’t go around (unless you are a quantum physicist!) visualising this sub atomic world; tables and trees are still solid to all intents and purposes. By analogy the self is separate and acting-on-the-world – but, there is a deeper reality also there once we question appearances.

It was Heraclitus who said we never step in the same river twice. Nietzsche too sees everything in a state of flux or ‘becoming.’ He also echoes Eckhart Tolle’s insistence that the ‘present moment’ is the only reality:

the present must not under any circumstances be justified by a future nor must the past be justified for the sake of the present. . . Strictly speaking nothing of the nature of Being must be allowed to remain – because in that case Becoming loses its value. .

Will to Power 708

And in Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

But the best parables should speak of time and becoming: they should be a eulogy and a justification of all transitoriness.

If we think of present-moment moments when we were, say transfixed by the beauty of a bird’s song, or moved by a painting, we can clearly see that we are much more than our thoughts and feelings or even our memories. In that moment consciousness is heightened and the ‘small self’ transcended. We are not aware of ourselves as a ‘particular person’ or as ‘someone’ carrying out a particular role.

As I stated in Part One, we today have a tremendous advantage over Nietzsche; many of us are incorporating meditational practices into our lives. For example the Buddhist anatta is not mere philosophy or metaphysics – it can be a real aid for us in letting thoughts and feelings pass though consciousness. I’m thinking of the problematic or painful thoughts of course, but it applies to all thoughts really. If I keep having the thought that ‘so and so ignores my emails because he isn’t interested in my ideas’ I may slip into a whole narrative of judgemental thoughts and end up in self-loathing. We may be able to accept the idea, ‘don’t believe everything you think,’ but ‘don’t believe everything you feel,’ is much more difficult. Most of the time we invest our identity in what we think and especially what we feel. Buddhism says this is delusive and I think Nietzsche is saying something similar. Getting to know how our minds work and the tricks they play on us is all part of what today is called mindfulness. I know of no other method other than some sort of mind-awareness practice such as mindfulness – which can enable us to respond in freedom to circumstances. If we are not self-aware in this respect we will be reactive to life, always acting from conditioning, rather than proactive. Where Nietzsche isn’t prescriptive, we can be prescriptive. (Even a book like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People talks of changing the obsolete scripts we were handed out in childhood/during our education etc.)

Another area where there is a huge overlap between Buddhism and Nietzsche is in the acknowledgement of suffering as part of life and how to incorporate it positively into our lives. As we saw in Part One Nietzsche’s solution is in his amor fati – to praise in spite of. Buddhism sees the cause of suffering (secondary suffering that is, as explained in Part One) as ‘grasping’ at things which we think will be advantageous to us and rejecting what we think will be disadvantageous.

Ahjan Chah emphasises that mindfulness of our likes and dislikes is a constant effort, not for the faint-hearted!

The Dhamma (Teaching) of the Buddha is profound and refined. It isn’t easy to comprehend.. If true wisdom has not yet arisen you can’t see it. . . When you experience happiness you think there will be only happiness. Whenever there is suffering you think there will only be suffering. You see only one side and thus it’s never-ending. There are two sides to everything; you must see both. Then when happiness arises, you don’t get lost; when suffering arises, you don’t get lost.. .. you see that they are interdependent.

Food For the Heart.

I am afraid if we want to be really free existentially and spiritually we will have to go against the current of accepted values and opinions. Nietzsche of course exemplifies this alone-ness. Here he is writing about the pioneer, ‘we free spirits’.

Solitude, that dread goddess. . . encircles him . . who today knows what solitude is? . . .If once he hardly dared to ask ‘Why so apart, so alone, renouncing all I loved? Already hearing the answer.

You had to become master over yourself. . of your own good qualities. Formerly they were your masters. You had to acquire power over your Yes and No and withhold them in accordance with your higher aims.” (my emphasis)

Human, All too Human

If we can become more all-embracing in our attitude to life and less self-concerned we will find our sense of self changing; I have had to incorporate my experience of depression into the context of Buddhist training and it has meant going into some very dark places. Once the journey has been started it is likely painful memories and feelings will surface. We use right effort and patient endurance to convert the three poisons of greed, hatred and delusion into generosity, compassion and wisdom. Likewise, Nietzsche’s ‘will to power’ is a good antidote to akrasia ( the inability to act according to our good judgement) and helps us to keep our minds receptive to new experiences and to grow in self-knowledge.

Although Nietzsche is all too often associated with wilfulness, and Dionysian abandon, one of his last acts before insanity overtook his last years, was to throw his arms around an ill-treated horse in an act of empathy. And who said he never wrote about love?

To have travelled the whole circumference of the modern soul, and to have sat in all its corners – my ambition, my torment, and my happiness. (sounds like becoming friends with hatred, greed and delusion to me!) Veritably to have overcome pessimism, and, as the result thereof, to have acquired the eyes of Goethe – full of love and goodwill.

The Will to Power, 1031

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Nietzsche: would you be prepared to re-live your life in exactly the same way?

penguin nietzsche reader

Dipping into Nietzsche: would you be prepared to re-live your life in exactly the same way?

Part One

Nietzsche is both a heroic and tragic figure. He epitomises the individualist; the person who finds the ordinary conventions and values of life trivial and stultifying. Who cannot be moved by the picture of him striding over the mountain tops, ‘6000 feet beyond man and time’, when ‘the abysmal thought’ came unannounced into his mind.

Nietzsche’s master- stroke is his much misunderstood Eternal Recurrence. The relevant passage is from The Gay Science/The Joyful Wisdom:

The greatest weight.— What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!”
Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?… Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life
to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?

The Gay Science, s.341, Walter Kaufmann, translator

Buddhist metaphysical ideas about karma are too complex to go into detail here but suffice it to say that everything we have thought or done in the past determines the sort of person we are in the present. One saying which has become common currency is – what we think today determines who we are tomorrow, which suggest it is widely understood outside of Buddhism. Here is a simple example of how we could create negative karma: if we are nasty to people habitually, one of the consequences is likely to be a lack of friends. If we are always criticising others we will suffer consequences; probably again people will avoid us. Why bother? (some might say!) The whole point of Buddhist training for me from the beginning was that I was sick of myself; I wanted to do something about myself. I wanted to change! (Keep this in mind as you will come across the same idea in Ivan Osokin’s story.) Any genuine spiritual training addresses these questions, ‘is it possible to change for the better? Is it possible to find lasting peace of mind?’ Surely everyone of us, if we are honest and have enough courage for self-reflection, has regrets about our past? (Not that many of us are like Edith Piaf with her Je ne Regrette – although perhaps she was only putting Nietzsche’s philosophy into practice?)

I wrote the above before I’d read the relevant chapter in Alexander Nahamas’, Nietzsche, Life as Literature. He dismisses a cosmological view of eternal recurrence preferring to interpret Nietzsche’s idea in psychological terms. His chapter devoted to Nietzsche’s idea is of considerable subtlety so I will merely pick out a few of the peaks and ‘free-associate’ a little.

It is vital to grasp that although Nietzsche describes his insight as ‘that abysmal thought’ – he paradoxically sees it as the ultimate spiritual test wherein we either succumb to life’s ills and challenges or completely accept them (how Buddhist is that!). This is how he puts it:

My formula for greatness for a human being is amor fati (love of one’s fate): that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it – all idealism is mendaciousness in the face of what is necessary – but love it.

Ecce Homo

Nehamas describes how all actions, situations and circumstances are interconnected in ways which sound to me very similar to the Buddhist idea of Indra’s Net; here is a typical description:

In the realm of the god Indra a vast net stretches infinitely in all directions. In each “eye” of the net there is a single brilliant, perfect jewel. Each jewel also reflects every other jewel, infinite in number, and each of the reflected images of the jewels bears the image of all the other jewels — infinity to infinity. Whatever effects one jewel effects them all. The metaphor illustrates the interpenetration of all phenomena. Everything contains everything else. At the same time, each individual thing is not hindered by or confused with all the other individual things.

At the same time Nehamas wonders why Nietzsche’s demon does not offer an opportunity for us to put right the mistakes we made in our previous life/lives, instead of mechanically repeating the life as if it were fixed. (Remember Nietzsche is thinking hypothetically.) The answer is related to Nietzsche’s view of the self being non-substantive (more Buddhist parallels):

There is no ‘being’ behind doing, effecting, becoming; ‘the doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed – the deed is everything. . . our entire science still lies under the misleading influence of language. . (This ‘no self’ in Buddhism is referred to as ‘anatta’)

The Genealogy of Morals

and

our bad habit of taking a mnemonic, an abbreviated formula, to be an entity, finally as a cause, eg. to say of lightening ‘it flashes.’ Or the little word ‘I’.

Will to Power, 548

Nietzsche believes that everything is so interconnected that if one detail in an event of the past were hypothetically changed the whole event would be different. Therefore – ‘there is no thing without other things.’ We need to accept good and evil as we imagine them to be; the warp and woof of existence.

Zarathustra asks:

Have you ever said Yes to a single joy? O my friends, then you have said Yes too to all woe. All things are entangled, ensnared, enamoured; if ever you wanted one thing twice, if ever you said, “You please me, happiness! Abide moment!” then you wanted all back. All anew, all eternally, all entangled, ensnared, enamoured.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Nehamas continues: a life that was different in any way would simply not be our life: it would be the life of a different person. To want to be different in any way is for Nietzsche to want to be different in every way; it is to want, impossible as that is, to be someone else.. . if we were to have another life it would necessarily have to be, if it were to be our life at all, the very same life we have already had.

Now, you are probably thinking that this is all very theoretical and that it doesn’t have much practical relevance for our actual lives. I personally have found that if you use Nietzsche’s idea as a ‘thought experiment’, it sheds considerable light on how we regard such things as regret, shame and contrition. One of Nietzsche’s enduring ideas is that interpretation and re-interpretation are essential approaches to experience; this is a very optimistic standpoint which may alleviate the possible pessimistic reaction to the idea of his eternal recurrence.

Other thinkers have wrestled with the problem. Consider the Russian writer, P. D. Ouspensky’s novella, The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin. (Ground Hog Day uses the same idea of eternal recurrence to great effect.) Ivan – in the novella – goes to a magician and asks to be sent back to his childhood in order to live his life over again and avoid all the mistakes he’s made. As we reflect on our past mistakes, naturally shame and regret will arise and it takes courage even to look; many people will not even acknowledge they’ve made mistakes. The question Nietzsche poses is; can we embrace all of it; the joys, woes and shame together; could we go back to our childhood and welcome the magician’s deal on condition that everything would occur exactly as the first time?

If you are wondering what happened to Ivan Osokin, he goes back to his childhood and repeats his life and makes exactly the same decisions as before, because he could not remain ‘present’ to the present. In Ouspensky’s terminology he was too identified with the situations he found himself in. (This aspect of mindfulness in the present moment is not something that Nietzsche discusses (and probably isn’t familiar with?) and could be considered to be the one factor missing from his account.) It is quite moving towards the end when he has glimpses of deeper realities when he is more alert; more present. This is the magician speaking when Ivan returns to him after re-living his life:

You know that everything repeats again and again. There have been other people who made the same discovery but they could make nothing more of it. If you could change something in yourself you could use this knowledge for your own advantage. You say you have nothing. Not quite. You have your life. So you can sacrifice your life. (my emphasis)

In the story, Ouspensky could have had Ivan become aware of his habitual reactive responses to life, and hence show him able to change. (Change often happens if we acknowledge our mistakes and vow not to repeat them, and then live in the ‘Now’. ) However, to show Ivan repeating the same mistakes drives the message home, that he is pinioned to the ‘wheel of life.’ Ouspensky’s view is somewhat pessimistic compared to Nietzsche’s.

To sum up: Osokin illustrates our common experience of regret and wanting to change the past. If this regret leads to us re-orientating our lives, becoming less self-concerned then all the better. This is where Buddhism, or any genuine spiritual practice, scores over Nietzsche! Ouspensky’s story is the antithesis of Nietzsche’s view as Osokin certainly cannot accept his past. He is ultimately a ‘nay-sayer.

As I’ve tried to argue, Nietzsche does not intend the idea of Eternal Recurrence to be taken literally. It is a thought experiment to focus our attention on the will, past events, self forgiveness and a celebration of life, ‘in spite of’. No amount of thinking will enable most of us to shout a resounding ‘Yes’ to the question, ‘Would you be prepared to live your life again exactly as before?’ But it may be possible to forgive ourselves and live in the present.

This is a good place to end Part One. Part Two will be posted some time in May. For anyone new to Nietzsche I’d recommend the ‘Penguin Classic’, A Nietzsche Reader (Translation by R. J. Hollindale) in which extracts from Nietzsche’s books are arranged chronologically. There is also a humorous and accurate short video here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ti9zdpLlXf0

Job’s Dark Night

jobs-charity

The story of Job is at first read puzzling for Christians and open-minded atheists alike. Why would God punish a man who lived an unblemished life? As is usual with Blake, things are never as simple as on first sight!

Lets dismiss all ideas of an anthropormorphic God to start with. In any case such depictions of God in Blake are always used as symbols (and personifications) of the state of mind of the interior person, in other words they are psychological and spiritual. Blake did not believe in a transcendent God, (which he called, Nobodaddy)!

Before looking at number 5 plate ( there are 21 altogether in Blake’s Job) how about thinking about contingency in present day life. How about the person – you may be that person – who suddenly gets a diagnosis of cancer? What if your husband leaves you for a younger woman? What if your son gets addicted to heroin? What if you spend a lonely Christmas day because of mental illness? I am not being over-dramatic I hope; all these scenarios happen to millions of us! This is what the Buddha calls, Dukkha. It’s life!

So, looked at in these terms Job isn’t getting punished; he is being brought up sharp against the facts of life afer living what he thought was a ‘good’ Christian life. In fact complacency and self-righteousness is his main ‘sin.’

The flying figure in the middle of the picture is Satan or Job’s corporeal self – the self who thinks being a good husband and father is all there is to life. Forget about your childhood exposure to horned devils – in Blake’s system Satan is (among other things) any thought or feeling which sparates you from  ‘Heaven’ – or in more worldly terms – peace of mind. Remember those moments in childhood when all was well with the world – don’t dismiss those moments as childish, they were a taste of reality. As Joseph Wicksteed writes in his commentary on Job, ‘. . in Blake’s system falsity of thought can turn any act however noble to his (satan’s) ends. If we think wrong we are wrong, for Mental things are alone real, and the devil can make a virtue as damning as a vice.’ How like the Buddhist system of the Eightfold path where right thought precedes appropriate action or the Dammapada where in the beginning it says; ‘ What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday. . . our life is the creation of our mind.’

In the picture Job is giving a loaf of bread to a beggar. Very altruistic you may think. But Blake is showing us that outward acts carried out self-righteously are missing the mark. None of Blake’s system is straightforward; especially in the Book of Job he is going way beyond our humanistic, materialistic understanding. All I can do here by isolating this one picture (which in itself is a disservice to Blake!) is to point to his profundity and suggest that his system is relevant to today.

The belief that in performing works of mercy in any shape whatever we are doing something meritorious poisons every act of humanity, making it a subtly selfish  attempt to save our souls in the name of love and religion; it is, after all, the worship of Satan in the belief that it is a tribute to God. Job’s thought makes him divide his meal indeed but not something of greater worth. ” (Joseph Wicksteed.)

Harsh words indeed and probably not what most people want to hear at Christmas time! And what of the gift ‘of greater worth’? Well you will have to study the Book of Job yourself (the peak experience is plate 18) if you want to find out!

Plate 5 is early on in Job’s story. To summarise what happens, he is inflicted with boils, loses his sons and daughters, his house and his reputation. Apart from the boils, does this remind you of anyone? It is a case of pride before the fall; Job loses all his material wealth and therefore has to ask, why? and ‘what is real?’ Rather like Ivan Ilyich in Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich he looks back on his life and reviews it. He has to face his ‘dark night’ and salvage something of a different order to his previous material existence.

In plate 11 Job is completely alone; this is surely the bleakest point of his Dark Night of the Soul. It is a magnificent image and as Kathleen Raine says in Golgonooza – City of Imagination, ‘he is alone; as we are each alone in the darkest hour.’ Remember Satan is the self-centred ego and if we allow it dominance over our lives we will eventually end up ‘burned up’ and alone. Apparently Blake used to address his satan (remember; not the biblical devil!) as, ‘my Satan, thou art but a dunce!’ How like the advice we are given nowadays not to believe our inner self-talk.

All of Blake’s work can be applied to our self-inquiry and self-knowledge in this manner.

As I have already said, to see how Job is transformed you will have to investigate (I use the word deliberately) the Book of Job yourself. I have not said much about the incredible quality of the drawings in themselves; they are masterpieces of composition. Who can forget, once seen, the image of Behemoth and Leviathan – illustration 15?

The best way into Blake’s supremely relevant and visionary Book of Job is with the detailed dissection by Joseph Wicksteed in his Blake’s Vision of the Book of Job. Also Kathleen Raine’s book has a chapter which is brilliant.

Dystopian Novel – Found Poem

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin is a remarkable dystopian novel published in 1921. It is a chilling narrative about control and collectivism and more subtle that Orwell’s 1984. The language (in translation) is curiously poetic and the imagery is surreal. Will Self in his Introduction to the Vintage edition talks about the ‘stuttering enjambments . . agonies of elipsis’  and ‘daring synasthesia’ of the narrative style. The protaganist does not even have a name – he is simply D503. I have tried to convey something of this nightmarish vision in this prose poem.

A MESOSTIC is like an acrostic except the vertical text runs down the middle of the main text.

=====in these hours oBserve the chastely lowered blinds in some rooms
==while others walk alOng avenues in the dark
=the infinite intersectiOn of citizens
========I’m at a desK all night

+                      +                    +
====hear squelshing fOotsteps behind me
===============I Feel as if my hands swinging by my sides don’t belong
but run between folded buildings searching for the woman I saw

yesterday             imagine the

====mocking angle of Her eyebrows raised above the windows of her eyes
=============see sOme people with their feet glued to the ceiling
========you think yoU are capable of love
==========he punctuRed me with his eyes
=====the only answer iS surgery

+                       +                         +

=============I will Be totally frank
============the absOlute solution to the mystery of happiness
=============has nOt yet fully materialised
=====one day we’ll lacK for nothing

+                        +                          +

========one day all Of these 86,400 seconds will be in the Table of Hours
============it’s difFicult to believe people used to live without precise regulation
getting up and going to bed

+                         +                          +

==whenever it occurreD to them I came
=====to a vision of mAthematical nirvana
===above a shape barelY visible clothed in ciphers of light

====descending from Skies – a new saviour

+                          +                            +

==============he Ushered me into the operation room with a smile
=========I knew reaSon & logic would triumph

+                           +                            +

I had to use the odd formating to try to get the vertical text to line up!

The drawing is my own.

Gauguin’s Soliloquy

aftergauguin

Gauguin’s Soliloquy – after Robert Browning

Gr-r-r – there goes my heart’s torment,
take your damn easel for a walk, do –
if hatred could kill men, Vincent,
God’s blood, would mine not kill you!
What? You’re going to pick sunflowers –
well, don’t bring them back to the sink,
I don’t want you painting here for hours.

Well, thank God, that lunatic’s gone –
he not only paints in oils but eats the stuff too!
Last night he went for me with a razor –
he slashed a canvas which I had to mend with glue.
He can only paint what’s in front of him;
I use my imagination as well as chrome yellow
while he complains of being a victim!

I expect you know he sponges off his brother?
Poor Theo has to send canvas and paints,
Vincent spends half the money on gin,
it’s enough to try the patience of saints,
I don’t think I can stand it much longer:
I’m in danger of committing a mortal sin
I don’t want to end up in the slammer.

Ah, I know what I’ll do, if you please,
I’ll pack up my things while he’s out –
I’ve always wanted to go to the South Seas;
the hot sun will be good for my gout!
Yes, I’ll paint native Tahitians – after they undress.
I’ll become famous for my Gardens of Eden
while mad, bad Vincent will die—penni-less!

The starting point for this was Robert Browning’s Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister from which you will see I’ve filtched the first two lines. Browning may be thought old fashioned and ‘Victorian’ but his trade mark dramatic monologues still feel original and alive to me.

It is well known that Van Gogh and Gauguin shared a house – the Yellow House in Arles – for a while and wondered about setting up an artists’ colony. The two artists were pretty temperamental characters and predictably they soon got on each others nerves!

Gauguin wrote a biased account of their time together which blames Vincent for everything that went wrong. As usual reality was more complicated. The stereotypical ‘crazy artist’  gets in the way of the actual complexities. I’ve always warmed more to Van Gogh’s paintings (than Gauguin’s ) and by reading his Letters, realised while he must have been hell to live with, he was  well- read, a visionary like Blake, intellectually and spiritually inquisitive and sensitive to suffering – but of course mentally unstable. There are many theories about this latter point. One of the more recent biographies is The Love of Many Things by David Sweetman which I have yet to read (apart from dipping into it). I would also like some day to visit the Vincent Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

The incidents in the poem are based on real events.

Caliban’s Last Stand

This is a poem and video I made for Shakespeare In Community online course. After you’ve watched my video you may be interested in a talk about Caliban given by Bruce Pattinson on Total Education – top left on the video collage.

Caliban Alone

My keeper left me on this Isle, free of chains; now
I’ll be steward to this Eden, free to govern golden
earth; to cultivate and grow figs and dates, and feast on fish
and crabs from the shore. I’ll drink from the best springs,
pluck the ripest berries and filch the blue bird’s nest.
Thus will I live unto my last expiring breath.
All I lack is a prosperous maid, but hark, I’ll prosper
on Fortune’s winds. I have Ariel’s rainbow music
to soothe my lonely soul. Farewell, be sorrow’s maid
and think of all this fleeting world as a star at dawn,
a bubble in a stream, a child’s laugh, a phantasm, a dream.
We are such stuff – Farewell – I’ve wood to fetch, meanwhile.

To Be Or Not To Be

slingers hamlet

Jonathon Slinger as Hamlet
To be or not to be is not just about the contemplation of suicide; it is also about procrastination and the disjunction between thought and action.
Hamlet’s inability to act quickly is mirrored in the Pyrrhus play in Act 2,2 – ‘Pyrrhus stood/And like a neutral to his will and matter/Did nothing.’ When the Ghost first appears to Hamlet and reveals the King has been murdered by Claudius there is deep irony in Hamlet’s response: ‘Haste me to know’t with wings as swift/As meditation or the thoughts of love/May sweep to my revenge.’ (Act 1, 5) Surely the first audiences would have been puzzled by Hamlet’s delay for the rest of the play? (Although Dover Wilson, in What Happens in Hamlet, is among those who think Hamlet was modelled on the Earl of Essex who plotted against Queen Elizabeth and was executed. That still leaves the question: Would the audiences have accepted his delay as simply a characteristic of the melancholic?)
Laertes also mirrors Hamlet in many ways; he too wishes to avenge his father. However, he is more like the conventional hero of the Revenge Tragedy. He doesn’t allow ‘the native hue of resolution’ to be thwarted by too much thinking! When Claudius asks him how ‘to show yourself in deed your father’s son.’ Laertes replies, ‘To cut his throat in th’ church.’ (Act 4,7)
Fortinbras too mirrors Hamlet in that he is avenging his father. But, like Laertes, is hot tempered – of ‘choleric humour.’ (‘Of unimproved mettle, hot and full..’) He is contrasted with the indecisiveness of Hamlet as he ‘Hath in the skirts of Norway here and there/Sharked up a list of lawless resolutes.’ (Act 1,1)
These duplicities underline Shakespeare’s aim of exploring the relationships between thought, intention and action in the context of an increasingly humanistic influence.
The play is peppered with variations on Shakespeare’s ‘all the world’s a stage’ conceit. In the Player’s Play the 1st Player sheds tears for a fictitious Hecuba. Hamlet observes, ‘ Tears in his eyes… A broken voice… And all for nothing!’ (Act 2,2) There is that incredible moment in the film The Truman Show where the eponymous hero sails up against a painted sky and realises for the first time that his whole life has been one long ‘performance’ carefully stage-managed. It is a truly chilling moment and owes something, I think, to the concept of Theatrum Mundi and George Gurdjieff’s idea that we are all automata wound up like clockwork; a kind of psychological determinism. The more subtle differences between appearance and reality are explored in modernism and post-modernism but were already centre stage in Shakespeare. We are all familiar with hypocrisy. Hamlet comments on Claudius thus, ‘That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain. . .’ (Act 1, 5) This is an unambiguous example of the disparity between body and mind. Some cynics have said that the distinguishing fact differentiating us from other animals is that we are experts in lying!
W.H. Auden in his Lectures on Shakespeare points out that many of the soliloquies are ‘detachable’ from the play – they can be understood as stand -alone ‘philosophy’ addressed to humanity.
When Hamlet says, ‘Give me that man/That is not passion’s slave,’ he is again speaking for us all.
The scene where Hamlet goads Guildenstern with: ‘You would play upon me, you would seem to/know my stops, you would pluck out the heart of my mystery, you would sound me from the lowest note…’ (Act 3, 2) brings to mind Eric Berne’s Games People Play. Here is a summary of one of these ‘games’ called, See What You Have Made Me Do:
First-Degree SWYMD: White, feeling unsociable, becomes engrossed in some activity which tends to insulate him against people. Perhaps all he wants at the moment is to be left alone. An intruder, such as his wife or one of his children, comes either for [affection] or to ask him something like, “Where can I find the long-nosed pliers?” This interruption “causes” his chisel, paintbrush, typewriter or soldering iron to slip, whereupon he turns on the intruder in a rage and cries, “See what you made me do.” As this is repeated through the years, his family tends more and more to leave him alone when he is engrossed. Of course it is not the intruder but his own irritation which “causes” the slip, and he is only too happy when it occurs, since it gives him a lever for ejecting the visitor. Unfortunately, this is a game which is only too easily learned by young children, so that it is easily passed on from generation to generation.
What could be more relevant to us today than the relationship between will, thought, emotion, intention, authenticity and moral choice. We overestimate free will in our personal lives and in society. Think, for example, of violence in young men triggered by a surge of testosterone. Think of political figures who are galvanised into action by vested interests such as financial gain or those who act upon the unconscious nudge towards increased status. With the character of Hamlet, Shakespeare was anticipating the latest discoveries in neurology. Books such as Steven Pinker’s, How the Mind Works suggest that we are all – to some extent – puppets, dancing to a synaptic symphony conducted deep within our squishy brains! Now, instead of humours and providence being our masters we have chemical messengers, genes, defence mechanisms and societal conditioning.
The only way to live authentically is by constant vigilance towards the workings of our own minds. The Ancient Greek’s, Know Thyself has come full circle with the various mindfulness practices which are becoming more widespread today. If Hamlet had practised something of this sort he would not have descended into chaos; but then we wouldn’t have the play with its high tragedy, complex psychology and deeply pessimistic message.