gall and gumption

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Briefly Noted

If you notice me wearing a shifty and shamefaced look it’s because I’ve been inhaling the fumes at ALDaily again. There’s something irresistible to me about that juxtaposition of actual interestingness and barking insanity; it’s like the dollar store.

Hence: is the Claremont Institute running out of ammunition for fighting the Culture Wars? The old flag is still flying above the fort, but they may be getting desperate. They appear to have found some 30-year-old ordinance (rusty, with a family of mice living in it) in the form of a very silly essay on Shakespeare, circa 1974.

In the creation of vast quantities of products whose best use is never to be used at all, the Shakespeare industry is rivaled only by the defense industry. I’m sure that by industry standards, this is not the silliest essay on Shakespeare that I could read, but it is the silliest one I ever hope to read. Here is where I draw the line. Below this I do not go.

As you can imagine the whole thing is nonstop laughs. The piece contrasts Macbeth as a moral hero (the good kind) with Camus’s Meursault and Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov (these are of course the bad kind). What is a moral hero? I don’t know. I welcome your suggestions. Also if you can think of a few examples of immoral heroes that would be nice, it would fill a gap in my education.

Raskolnikov shares with Meursault the fact that his crime leads in the end, not to a fall, but to an ascent to a higher form of consciousness, to a salvation which would not have been possible had the crime not been committed. There is moreover nothing in Raskolnikov's punishment to discourage anyone—e.g., a Lenin—who may look upon him as the prototype of the revolutionary hero.

Knowing something about the history of ideas in 19th-century Russia might have cleared this up, but apparently Jaffa chose not to go that route.

In Crime and Punishment, we see a moral consciousness resembling in decisive respects a messianic Christianity. Such reform of society as may be envisioned has nothing to do with politics, and in fact subsists upon the conviction that salvation consists in direct action—such as murdering an old woman, or a royal family. Napoleon's action in destroying the ancien régime, and replacing it with the regime of reason, executing whoever stood in the way, is the tacit model.

That highlighted sentence just might be the wrongest sentence I have ever read. Every single word is wrong, each is wrong in its own special way, and some words have sort of layers of wrong, great hair-sprouting growths of wrong sort of bulging off them.

Three protagonists are under discussion: the affectless, alienated Meursault, and Raskolnikov the “direct action revolutionary” who upon committing his only crime is tormented by guilt and, at last, redeemed by Dostoevsky’s mystical, reactionary Panslavist/Christian sentimentality. And Macbeth. And which one of these three heroes murders a royal family? Yes, oddly, the one who “feels the power of morality to the fullest extent.”

Jaffa introduces Macbeth to us in the context of a rather astonishing thesis. I’m breaking up this long paragraph into three pieces, just to call your attention to a few things. Highlighted passages are highlighted by me.

Macbeth on the other hand is a man who feels the power of morality to the fullest extent. He does so, I suggest, because he is a political man. By a political man, I understand someone who is a vital part of a political community. For Camus's hero the political community does not exist. For Dostoevsky's hero, it exists only marginally. Raskolnikov is the model for a revolutionary, whose cause is that of all humanity. His is a polity—like the City of God—that has no borders. Patriotism is not possible however in a world polity ("world polity" is an oxymoron). Patriotism is possible only if there is a connection between one's father and the political order. (In the City of God, God the Father is the father of that city.)

I could go in and try to present evidence to contradict both of the highlighted assertions, but it seems sort of futile; there’s no evidence, no argument, no work. My guess is that I am witnessing someone simultaneously misreading Aristotle and Shakespeare. These definitive statements of dubious origins are all the premises on which the whole theory of Macbeth’s virtues rests. We have no idea how Jaffa arrived at them. But having laid down these fatherless axioms, away he goes!

In Macbeth's case, patriotism has a literal meaning, as he belongs to the royal family. He murders the king, forcing the king's sons—one of whom is the confirmed heir—to flee. He becomes king—after the murder—by a process of election, but one which is limited to the royal family.

Murdering the good, popular king who has just rewarded you for your services in battle doesn’t seem patriotic to me. Does that seem patriotic to you? Is this how you want your patriots to act? No matter; we needed to understand the technicalities of royal succession in imaginary feudal Scotland. Why we find ourselves at the end of this cul-de-sac I do not know. But when we come out of it we are in yet another surprising place, unable to say how we got there either.

When we speak of patriotism we presume a people descended from a common ancestor.

As the joke goes, “We who, white man?” What does “descended from a common ancestor” even mean? I mean, when someone says it in the late 20th century, what does it mean? Science has us all descended from a common ancestor. But I doubt that that is what was meant here. It does become clear that Jaffa’s notion of patriotism is tribal.

The children of Israel are those descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They are the original fathers, the founding fathers. In the most patriotic speech in American history, Abraham Lincoln began by saying, "Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation...." Now the United States, like other modern nation-states, is not a polity in the original sense of the political: the law of the Constitution makes fellow citizens of those of different ethnicities. The unity of the human race, as proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence, in Lincoln's poetic evocation, replaces the particular ancestors of ancient polities with the nature which is the universal ancestor of all human beings. Macbeth as he comes into sight is above all a citizen. As such, he shares responsibility for the commonwealth and, as a citizen-soldier, labors in its service. He feels keenly the honor that accompanies his heroic deeds. In serving the country by serving the king, he is keenly aware of the greatness of the honor that accompanies the person of the king. His ambition is therefore, in its origin, a by-product of his virtue.

There is a gap between these two highlighted sentences and I am afraid I cannot suggest anything reasonable that would fill it. Is Macbeth a citizen in the pre-Gettysburg sense, or in the post-Gettysburg sense? If he’s a citizen in the pre-Gettysburg sense, then what does that make all of us folks who can never be “above all a citizen” because we don’t have a cousin who is a king? I guess we are just the dog’s dinner.

As it happens, the speech is useless in this discussion. Well, not quite useless, since Lincoln’s idea of citizenship does one useful thing; it refutes Jaffa’s whole thesis about the public citizen Macbeth versus the private and therefore marginal citizens Raskolnikov and Meursault. There’s no indication that Jaffa ever notices this, either. But that’s OK, he’s got the apples and he’s got the oranges and by God, he’s going to compare them. The project works better if you, like Jaffa, ignore about 500 years of actual history and a corresponding body of literature that, since the time of Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s contemporary and friend, thought that serious dramatic and fictional works could be about ordinary people.

Why don’t these large facts matter? Does ignoring them produce any kind of net yield in terms of insight or understanding? Is this a fair question to ask? I think so.

After roping in Lincoln, Aristotle, Plato, the Declaration of Independence, John Locke to this project, after invoking the Moral Order and the Moral Universe (violated, inevitably, and inevitably restored), after bringing in all this heavy artillery, what exactly do we know? What insights into Macbeth’s character have we gained? We learn that Lady Macbeth, “evil personified,” made him do it.

At the beginning, Macbeth's strength, such as it is, lies in the clarity with which he views the moral order and understands his place within it. But his will is not equal to his reason, and her will, aided and abetted by her conjugal power, sweeps away the reason that is in him.

What we have learned, in other words, is just who wears the pants in the Macbeth house. And other than the fact that between breakfast and bedtime his wife can talk him into committing multiple murders, he is a deeply moral man.

As the drama proceeds, he loses the doubt and hesitation he possessed before, and becomes ever more resolute in acting out the multiplying demands of tyranny. Yet even as he loses all restraint, and all conscience, he is punished by his awareness of the goodness of the life he has foresworn. The crown is not, as Lady Macbeth had supposed, an avenue to felicity but to damnation, in this world no less than in the next.

But it’s not the crown that is driving them both bonkers: it’s the guilt, which is on such a dreadful scale that it even gets through their willing self-deception. They aren’t sitting there in the castle singing “I’m only a bird in a gilded cage.” Macbeth is seeing ghosts of his victims, and Lady Macbeth is seeing imaginary, indelible bloodstains on her hands. Moreover, they haven’t exactly been discreet in all of this; everyone knows what they have done, and the jig is up.

And anyway why should “a man who feels the power of morality to the fullest extent” believe for one second that the avenue to felicity is to make himself king by murdering a bunch of perfectly innocent people? Where, except in the bizarre parallel universe of academic literary criticism, would such a proposition be met with anything but ridicule?

I’m going to pause here and say something that may shock you. I don’t think Macbeth is a very nice person. I think Shakespeare was quite content for Macbeth to be a bad person whose specious goodness (war offers opportunity for just this kind of on-the-spot heroism, which is part of its appeal) crumples under the combination of ambition, self-deceit, fecklessness and cowardice that constitutes his everyday character.

Macbeth makes beautiful arguments against doing these terrible deeds but then he caves in and does them anyhow. I do not see how that can be considered good. I do not see how a person who acts that way can be considered moral. But people frequently confuse the impressiveness of Shakespeare’s language with actual morality. He’s not a particularly moral writer. He is a purveyor of sensational emotions. The momentum of emotion may take Shakespeare to a place that incidentally happens to be moral, as in, say, Coriolanus, but it is just as likely to lead him someplace like Hamlet.

As a portrait of a very bad man, Macbeth is great, but there’s more morality in one line of Chaucer, even in a story about chickens and a fox: “O false mordrour, lurkynge in thy den!” than there is from one end of Macbeth to the other.

As for me, I like my heroes to have some gumption. You want to talk about citizens? Michael Kohlhaas is a citizen. Try talking him into or out of anything! His actions and choices have dreadful consequences, but when he embarks on his bloody quest it is with a cool and full acceptance of the reasons for those actions and of the responsibility for the consequences, up to and including his own death by hanging. But he is only a horse dealer, not a member of the aristocracy. And he wages war not to get something he isn’t entitled, but to reclaim something that was absolutely his that was taken away from him. By Jaffa’s theory, the worthless Junker von Tronka is the better man, because he is a member of an elite that is inherently (literally!) morally superior.

Jaffa’s ideas on Macbeth don’t travel; they fall apart if you think about any literature that he doesn’t mention. And they fall apart if you think about 400 or so years of history (English Civil War, Enlightenment, French Revolution, 19th century novelists in two continents, two World Wars, Russian Revolution, etc.) between Shakespeare’s time and ours – and even in Shakespeare’s time the feudal world was basically a memory thanks to among others the Tudor kings -- and what all that history might have to say about what makes a citizen and what makes a morally interesting person.

I want you to notice the incoherence, the inability to make a good joint between two ideas or even to sustain attention to one. I want you to notice the total inability to handle any kind of evidence. I want you to notice the promiscuous use of fanciful, unexamined, unexplained, pseudo-philosophical general assertions that do not bear up under the most casual scrutiny. Notice, too, all that busy deductive activity and the utter banality of the resulting conclusions.

It is the sort of academic literary criticism that was written by stars of the field before postmodernism and multicultural criticism swept through. This is what the culture warriors at the Claremont Institute are nostalgic for. This is the good old days. I still run into people who, however jaded they are with the current state of literary study, say that the awfulness of New Criticism was worse. This makes as much sense as thinking that Napoleon established the regime of reason. There is a difference between what people say they are going to do and what they actually do. Sometimes I suspect that all these folks read is the brochures. They listened to hacks asserting their own hipness—not by anything so backward as actually producing interesting work, mind you—but by simply repeating that New Criticism was so last year! If there was ever a man of straw, the New Criticism was it. This essay is not bad because of New Criticism; it’s bad because its author can’t think. If he’d become a deconstructionist or a New Historicist or a multiculturalist or a Lacanian the results would be the same.

These strange historical judgments occur in a sort of special happy place where judgments are not disturbed by facts and where you expect that any criticism will only be a matter of polite professional form and where all premises and assumptions, no matter how silly and vacuous and improbable, are sacred.

This is a piece of writing that does not want to be questioned. You and I, my small but select readers, are assumed to be as stupid and as fantastic a creature as Jaffa’s Lenin, who gets the idea for the Bolshevik Revolution from reading Dostoevsky. No interesting vistas, no interesting unknowns appear. Call attention to its deficiencies and you will be told that all this is theoretical in a way to which the claims of logic, relevance to known facts and to actual human experience do not apply. Again, I ask: if you trade away these basic measures of competence and intellectual honesty, what can you get in return that will be worth it? And how will you measure what you get?

I do not call your attention to these things for their own sakes, or to show off my own cleverness. You may be wondering why I bother with this old relic of an essay. Surely even I, extremely small potato that I am, have bigger fish to fry. I certainly ought to at least be looking for bigger fish. Professor Jaffa is still alive, and this essay, which dates back to 1974, is really what I called it – a piece of very early-vintage culture war ordinance that has been re-enlisted so to speak.

Raskolnikov and Meursault are the heroes of two “Undergraduate Bibles.” That’s what we called the inevitable collection of the same well-thumbed paperbacks that you found in college dorm rooms and apartments in the late 1970/early 1980s. The full list included works by Vonnegut, Pynchon, Hesse, Salinger, Camus, Sartre, and basically one book by Dostoevsky – Crime and Punishment. Jaffa’s essay is an attack on the literature of existentialism, of escape and rebellion, and, indirectly, on the vogue it enjoyed among college students at the time.

Certainly I had read those books (except Pynchon; cannot read Pynchon, prose makes me gag, and I could never take myself seriously enough to “get” Hesse. It just seemed fearfully dull) but I outgrew them by the end of my freshman year. The smartest people at Creative Studies were not terribly interested in these books; and I was following those people because they knew about stuff I didn’t know about. I did not get my morals corrupted by Dostoevsky and Camus. I got my morals corrupted by D.H. Lawrence and Tolstoy. It’s not my literary taste that’s under attack here.

While I was writing the dissertation, I found that Wallace Stevens’ poetry really attracted this sort of thing; modernism in general did. Modernism in poetry was a change in the motive, the idiom, the techniques and the subject matter. Now, it seems to me that explaining this change and its historic causes and implications to students and readers and making it actually mean something to them could keep a person quite occupied enough. But no. That was work for mere English teachers. And they yearned to be so much more than English teachers. Physicists, possibly. Or theologians. Modernism had to be a transformation of the very material and functioning of the universe. You often came across these imaginary Non-Governmental Organizations like the Moral Order (violated, inevitably, and just as inevitably, restored), and once a writer proved the existence of these entities (usually, merely mentioning them was sufficient proof), he’d go steaming away producing these sort of Rube Goldberg deductive structures from them while you were still wondering when the existence of this thing became as settled as Newton’s Laws. By day, mild-mannered English Professor… By night, prognosticator of metaphysical cataclysm!

Postmodernism did nothing to dispel this mood of fantasy and grandiosity. There was the same sense of the whole thing taking place in some sort of parallel Alice in Wonderland universe (possibly that Moral Universe), a special, happy place in which there is no accountability to logic, coherence, or evidence. In fact the messianic claims got even more manic and hyperinflated. The main difference was optimism: for the postmodernists the Breaking of the Vessels opened up some great opportunities in shard derivatives. And you kept hearing that postmodern criticism was the highest and most important form of literary activity, this was where the culture was going. Of course you primarily heard this from postmodernists. The only people who took these revolutionary fantasies at their face value, other than the postmodernists themselves, were people like – well, people who manage to believe that Napoleon caused the French Revolution and established the rule of godless reason.

Here, again, how were you to prove that all this activity and prophesying was doing any good? The whole profession had immunized itself against criticism; it had intellectually deregulated itself, and everybody was going to get rich.

At the very least, all this fabulousness should have produced some enthusiastic, passionate, productive, sharp English majors, right? OK, how about just people who came out of English departments more interested in literature, and interested in more literature, than when they went in?

No? Well. Who could have imagined?



At 10:09 AM, Blogger Chuckling said...

Very nice essay. I found it interesting because I have actually read Crime and Punishment and The Stranger numerous times and am currently on a Macbeth kick (trust me, you don't want to know).

I enjoy your take on all this, which is deep, insightful and well-written. I read the Jaffa piece before reading the rest of your essay and had a few of the same thoughts.

Unbelievable as it may seem, it appears that I am in a position to fill a gap in your education. There are plenty of immoral heroes in literature. Whether speaking of Shakespeare or not, Richard III stands out as perhaps the greatest immoral hero of all time. If you haven't seen the film with Ian McKellen, I recommend you rent it immediately. Without thinking too hard, I could also throw in Little Alex in A Clockwork Orange, Mickey and Mallory in Natural Born Killers and any of Knut Hamsun's narrators in his early novels.

Anyway, I thought the greater crime was comparing Macbeth, which I consider to be poorly written drivel (I'd explain further, but that's a line under which you don't want to go), to great novels by Dostoyevsky and Camus. He could have at least picked decent literature to make his point, such as it is.

At 3:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a pleasure to read this. Fortunate is the student who has you to profess literature.

Phil at

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