The Age of Answer-Mongers

Over two decades ago, in the introduction to I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional, Wendy Kaminer remarked: “Today, even critical books about ideas are expected to be prescriptive, to conclude with simple, step-by-step solutions to whatever crisis they discuss. Reading itself is becoming a way out of thinking.”

While I don’t agree with all of Kaminer’s points in the book, I have seen the phenomenon she describes. I generally find self-help books glib, misleading, and unenlightening. (There are exceptions, but the genre as a whole rubs me the wrong way.) For instance, the self-help guru Louise Hay claims that illnesses are caused by negative patterns of thinking; change your thinking, and you will get well. What a dangerous oversimplification, and how unfair to the seriously ill!

I have known the pressure to provide prescriptions. My book was criticized (in an otherwise appreciative review) for not doing so; I have seen other books receive similar rebukes. What if the book was never meant to be prescriptive? Many, it seems, regard such books as bookshelf parasites: taking up space but not doing their job, which is to tell the readers exactly what to do and how to lead their lives.

So I was dubious from the start when I saw Tara Parker-Pope’s article “Divorcing a Narcissist” (about Karyl McBride’s Will I Ever Be Free of You? How to Navigate a High-Conflict Divorce from a Narcissist and Heal Your Family). The article contains an interview and a link to a “book club” discussion (to which I contributed a comment). While I recognize that narcissists exist and can do great harm, I suspect that many with narcissistic traits are not narcissists per se. There’s a big difference between having traits of extraversion and being an extravert; the same goes for narcissists, paranoiacs, and many other types. Moreover, some traits are temporary; a person can experience paranoia in a period of intense stress and worry without being a paranoid type.

Yet many of the comments burst with epiphany: “OMG—yes! That’s my husband exactly!” Oddly, each “exactly” differs from the next; the commenters describe a variety of painful relationships, with little in common among them. There is nothing wrong with considering the possibility that a loved (or not-so-loved) one has narcissistic traits–but why rush to call him or her a narcissist? Something else (worse, better, comparable, or incomparable) may be going on. In addition, very few commenters admit to defects of their own (beyond putting up with the narcissist for too long). It seems that the book—or at least its underlying concept—invites the willing to a mass finger-pointing party.

I don’t plan to read the whole book—I have too much else to read—but I did read the beginning, just to gauge my impressions. Dr. McBride cautions right away against loose use of the term “narcissist,” noting out that narcissism is comorbid (i.e., coexists) with other disorders, such as Borderline Personality Disorder and Hystrionic Personality Disorder. She then provides the nine traits listed in the DSM. So far, the approach seems reasonable. (Incidentally, the status of NPD in the DSM has not been stable; at one point it seemed that NPD would disappear from DSM-5.)

The mischief arises when she goes on to describe how the traits might play out in life. Each of her descriptions could apply to someone who wasn’t necessarily narcissistic but rather snobbish, controlling, entitled, vain, or hyper-competitive. They leave too much room for the kind of loose diagnosis that the author warns against. For example:

5. Has a sense of entitlement and expects automatic compliance of others.  Example: Marcy felt she was entitled to pay less and demand more from the law firm she had retained. She refused to talk with the paralegals, always demanding to speak with “the attorney I am paying so much money to.” If her hysterical demands were not met instantly, Marcy would threaten to change attorneys. Her favorite saying to her friends and family was “I will demand attention and be heard immediately, and if you don’t believe me, just watch.” Marcy’s lawyer dumped her right before the proceedings began.

Marcy may be a narcissist, but she also may not be. From this description, we do not know. Even the attitude “I will demand attention and be heard immediately” sounds like a clumsy version of what children are often encouraged to do. Certainly Wendy is going about it inappropriately, but she’s not alone in trying to get through and be heard. In some contexts, such aggressiveness is common.

In another example, the author describes someone who keeps the family waiting while she dresses up for going out; when she finally emerges, she expects them to exclaim how gorgeous she looks. A great deal of that could be cultural, not pathological; in some cultures (including U.S. and European), women are expected (or expect themselves) to take “forever” dressing up.

Then the author comes to this blistering statement:

These nine traits describe why narcissists cannot love. They place primary importance on “what you can do for me” and expend a lot of energy on appearances. In a relationship with a narcissist, you will eventually realize that this person does not see the real you. You are the person’s object to be manipulated for his or her own goals and needs.

Egad—how did we land here? The author has moved from a cautious beginning (not everyone with narcissistic traits is a narcissist) to a full-blown conclusion (the narcissist cannot love). Aware of possible objections, the author then asks, “Is your partner a narcissist?” and offers eighteen questions to help the reader decide. (“As you go through this list,” she advises, “put a check mark next to any question you answer yes. The more questions you check, the more likely it is that your partner falls somewhere on the narcissism spectrum—maybe even has a full-blown narcissistic personality disorder.”) In this way, the author ends up not only condoning but even facilitating sloppy diagnosis.

Very well (or not). But why does this have popular appeal? If someone has a self-serving spouse, what does it matter whether this person is a narcissist? If the relationship has gone bad, that’s enough reason to take some kind of action. The spouse may actually be loving—many difficult and troubled people are—but if the love doesn’t come through, that’s a setup for a miserable marriage.

Suppose the author is correct that a full-blown narcissist cannot see the “real you.” Does the person rushing to diagnose the spouse really see the “real diagnosing other”? To see the other, one must stay open to uncertainties and surprises. Sometimes, even with those uncertainties and surprises, it’s clear that two people must go separate ways. It is possible to leave someone unpackaged.

Of course, that’s difficult, and there lies the book’s appeal. Divorces require toughness and resolve; if the parties let themselves waver, they will. Diagnosis offers certainty, which propels action. Yet certainty about another person (and even about oneself) creates its own harm. The greatest challenge is to take action in the absence of simple answers: to keep an open soul but move forward in one’s life.

Note: I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

The Emptiness of Customer Satisfaction

This morning I read two contrasting pieces:  Maria Popova’s wise commentary on Josef Pieper’s Leisure, the Basis of Culture, and Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld’s New York Times article “Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace.” The one posits that true leisure allows one to participate in the mystery of reality; the other, that a brutal workplace can generate solutions and answers, albeit with great human costs (or that a supposedly innovative workplace has taken too great a toll on its employees’ lives). It seems that the two articles describe two opposing approaches to life. What is the nature of the difference, and why has the latter become dominant?

Popova quotes Pieper: “In leisure, there is … something of the serenity of “not-being-able-to-grasp,” of the recognition of the mysterious character of the world, and the confidence of blind faith, which can let things go as they will.” In contrast, Kantor and Streitfeld quote Amazon’s top recruiter, Susan Harker: “This is a company that strives to do really big, innovative, groundbreaking things, and those things aren’t easy. … When you’re shooting for the moon, the nature of the work is really challenging. For some people it doesn’t work.” (Yes–but  many people seem to want to make it work. That is perplexing.)

On the surface, these incompatible world views seem to differ primarily over agency. To enjoy leisure, one must give up control, at least for a while. To be productive on Amazon’s terms, one must never give up control; one must be constantly generating ideas, improving on them, acting on them, and assessing their results. (On the other hand, one must submit to the company’s principles and practices.) There’s something refreshing about the “Amazon way”; to those who like intellectual challenge and frank exchange, it may promise welcome relief from lives of mediocrity. There seems to be more at stake here, though.

The principles of control and receptivity are not always incompatible. A musician, for instance, must work diligently to improve but must also have the capacity to listen fully. A cabinet-maker should have an appreciation of wood as well as the skill of working with it. A person learning a language must be willing both to practice verbs and to step into the unknown: to be surrounded with unfamiliar sounds, words, phrases, and tones.

What is it, then, about work at Amazon that makes it absolutely opposed to leisure? It isn’t so much the striving for excellence as the striving for empty excellence. The highest value, according to Amazon’s own “leadership principles,” is customer satisfaction and trust: “Leaders start with the customer and work backwards. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.”

This means that Amazon does everything to keep the customers coming back. It does not matter what the product is, as long as the customer comes back for more of it. It does not matter how long and hard the employees have to work, as long as the data point to customer engagement. Kantor and Streitfeld write,

In Amazon warehouses, employees are monitored by sophisticated electronic systems to ensure they are packing enough boxes every hour. … But in its offices, Amazon uses a self-reinforcing set of management, data and psychological tools to spur its tens of thousands of white-collar employees to do more and more. “The company is running a continual performance improvement algorithm on its staff,” said Amy Michaels, a former Kindle marketer.

Do more and more what? Improve at what? If customer service is the primary goal, yet the customers are not individuals but masses, then the point of work becomes to raise the numbers, period. If it were not for our culture of rush–of getting things quickly with as little human interaction as possible–Amazon would lose to the bookstore, record store, and corner store. Amazon replaces those things because people want the swiftness and convenience. So the employees are serving swiftness and convenience, which create a need for more of the same.

Why would someone choose to serve swiftness and convenience as goods in themselves? Why give one’s life to a job that has no substance, no meaning, beyond doing more and more for the customer? Another of Popova’s quotes of Pieper may offer a clue:

The code of life in the High Middle Ages [held] that it was precisely lack of leisure, an inability to be at leisure, that went together with idleness; that the restlessness of work-for-work’s-sake arose from nothing other than idleness. There is a curious connection in the fact that the restlessness of a self-destructive work-fanaticism should take its rise form the absence of a will to accomplish something.

Pieper explains, “Idleness, for the older code of behavior, meant especially this: that the human being had given up on the very responsibility that comes with his dignity.” It is the opposite of leisure, which involves a deep sense of responsibility. Those who feel idle are the very ones who want to be productive for the sake of being productive. Productivity becomes a source of identity, a stamp of being. (In the Amazon context, productivity means not only packing boxes but generating ideas for packing more boxes.) Where the work lacks inherent meaning, “workaholism” expresses and exacerbates emptiness.

My point is not that “those people” who work at Amazon lack a sense of meaning or self. The danger of emptiness is present for everyone. Our sense of leisure has been corrupted. How  many of us spend an hour poking around on the computer? This “poking around” is not contemplative or productive; it’s idle in that it does not require a full response to anything at all. So, after an hour or more of that, it’s natural to want to “get something done”–where any accomplishment at all seems preferable to that indeterminate state. On a larger scale, where people lack concrete things they want to do, they will seize  on opportunities to get things done (for the sake of getting things done).

Leisure requires a willingness to be ridiculous or useless in others’ eyes. It’s full of comedy; when you let yourself into leisure, you see how the world plays. It’s lonely in that few will join you in it. It’s also open and loyal; you can enter it anywhere and never get turned away except by your own doing. That’s what makes it difficult. It takes courage to live for more than satisfaction (or even dissatisfaction); it takes vision to work (or not work) at something beyond the job.

Review or Negative Commercial?

Yesterday, when reading a New York Times review of Ricki and the Flash (starring Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Rick Springfield, and others), I noticed an embedded video: not a trailer, but the most disparaging “takeaways” of the review, read over actual film footage. It came across as a negative commercial.

Who initiated this format, and why? It may be an old phenomenon; I rarely read reviews, so I wouldn’t know. I am disappointed that the New York Times (and A. O. Scott, the reviewer) would agree to such a thing. The full print review has a little more dimension; it makes the film seem interesting if not absolutely worth seeing. The video flattens the film from the get-go.

If we live in an era of takeaways, it’s an era worth resisting; publications and individuals could push for robust expression. Instead, we’re getting articles that look like ads, ads that pose as articles, and videos that tell us what to think.

My response to this video can be distilled into three brief takeaways: Why? Argh. Why?

Behind and Ahead: A Conference and a Forum

At the end of June I took part in the PLATO conference in Seattle, along with three students from my school. Ron Gunczler, founding co-editor-in-chief of CONTRARIWISE, presented along with his co-editor-in-chief, Nicholas Pape, who Skyped in. (Both are now heading off to college.) Kelly Clevenson, now co-editor-in-chief of CONTRARIWISE, helped with technology and took part in discussions. I gave a presentation as well, in a session with Carl Rosin.

The atmosphere was inspiring and congenial; people came from around the world to present their work and discuss ideas with others. Jonathan Kozol gave the keynote address to a rapt audience. We met Alessia Marabini, whose students won second place in the CONTRARIWISE International Contest; Lizzy Lewis, who spread the word about the contest; Mark Balawender, PLATO’s communications director; and many others. (Here’s the one photo I have so far; here’s the program with abstracts and bios.)

Looking ahead: On September 25 and 26, I will speak at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture’s 2015 Education Forum, along with a noble multitude: Louise Cowan, Diane Ravitch, Andrew Delbanco, William Deresiewicz, Elizabeth Samet, Dan Russ, Matthew Crawford, and Ben Olguín. The forum will address the nature and urgency of liberal education as described in Donald Cowan’s essay “The Spirit of Liberal Learning” (in his book Unbinding Prometheus: Education for the Coming Age). Here’s a quote that struck me today:

For genuine learning to take place, instruction must be incomplete, working by synecdoche, leaving gaps that demand completion, transferring the responsibility for learning to the student. The failure that attends education by visual aids is precisely an over-specification and over-control that terminate an insight outside the imagination and seek to imprint it directly on the viewer.

Visual aids themselves are not themselves the problem here (at least not necessarily). It’s the act of interfering with imagination–filling in every possible gap, explaining concepts and meanings from start to finish, and leaving nothing to the individual mind–that deadens and flattens curricula. None of this is necessary; it is possible to teach clearly while leaving enough open that students have a chance to think. How much to tell explicitly, and how much to leave open? That will vary from subject to subject, level to level, class to class, teacher to teacher, and lesson to lesson–but teaching consists in the pursuit of the correct ratio.

It is an honor to participate in these events and discussions.

Update: Here’s another photo from the PLATO Conference.

To See the Possibility of Good

I have been sorting through my things–lugging out bag after bag of garbage, and coming upon letters, books, poems, and other items I didn’t remember I had. I have not done this so thoroughly in a long time. It takes patience but refreshes my spirits (and makes my desk and drawers perusable again).

I have been noticing how important it is to perceive the good, or at least the possibility of good–in those around me and in life itself. This does not mean giving up one’s critical faculties; in fact, it requires looking more carefully than usual. Some of the letters I have saved for years have this quality of perception. Someone saw something good in me, or in someone else, or in something else; whatever the source of good, the perceiving was good in itself.

You can see good in someone without ignoring his or her flaws. Sometimes you have to call others on their errors or weaknesses–but if you do so with openness to the good, the criticism should not harm, unless it is taken in the wrong way. A mean-spirited critique (for instance, a spiteful review of a performance) shuts off possibilities, while a generous one keeps them open.

Of course it is difficult to be open to the good. We have preferences, instincts, and limited time. There are books I will not read to the end (and absolutely detest), albums I will not give a second chance, dishes I will not taste a second time, people I will not befriend. Still, I try to think of at least some of this in terms of my own limitations. I can’t do everything and would not want to try; I’d rather have more time for a few things. In addition, sometimes a harsh judgment can help me take a direction; I will find my way to good writing when I know what to pass over.

For a teacher, it is especially important to see good in the students and their efforts–and to resist the extremes of unmitigated applause and criticism. Some call this the “growth mindset”–focusing on helping students improve and helping them think in terms of progress–but there’s more to it. It has something to do with letting oneself see things and people in the first place. This can happen within the subject matter; you learn about others as you see them tackle an electrical circuit or interpret a passage of Emerson.

There is societal pressure to mark oneself and others with likes and dislikes, tally them up, and arrive at final numbers. Supposedly this speeds up the human processing. I am not sure why we have to go so fast, unless we are in some kind of danger (and even then, some caution is in order). As I sort through my things, I find myself grateful to those who took me slowly and kindly–and invited me into their interest in something else.

Have We Given Up on Conversation?

The other day, on the train, I was sitting next to two teenage girls who were talking with such shrieks in their voices that I thought, “why so loud?” Then I glanced over and saw that both were wearing earphones and had music playing. That is, they were talking over the music playing into their ears. They probably had no idea how loud they were.

Then I transferred to an express train and witnessed the same thing, all over again, with different teenagers. I suppose this is a trend.

But my complaint here is not about teenagers or technology. On a much larger scale we are giving up conversation: letting it be interrupted, drowned out, and compromised. Technology has something to do with it, but we ourselves are to blame for not defending our conversations more staunchly. The wish for a conversation can come across even as an affront: “I don’t mean to be rude, but I would like to talk with you.” For the sake of clarity and focus, I will consider one-on-one conversations only.

First of all, why are conversations important? They allow for more than the “exchange” of ideas, information, feelings, and experiences; through a conversation, you take another into yourself and are changed as a result. You hear things coming from a mind different from your own; not only the words but the gestures play a part. Nothing like this is possible in group discussions, which have their own purposes and possibilities.

The kind of conversation I describe above used to be a staple of my life. It is now a rarity. Why?

First, we have given in to the interruption. I remember the common practice (and etiquette) of returning to a conversation after it has been interrupted, of picking up right where it left off. Today that is considered not polite but brazen; one is expected to honor the interruption and let the conversation go. Broken off in mid-sentence? Oh, well! You would be a fool to resist that.

Second, we have come to exalt the group over the pair. Suppose you are in conversation with someone, and someone else comes along and joins in. Of course, even in the best of circumstances, one should be as gracious as possible: welcome the third person into the discussion for a little while, change the topic accordingly, and so on. Graciousness is one thing—but what I see today is indifference. Group discussions take over because no one acknowledges a loss in this. The group (or dreaded “team”) is the ultimate formation; few go against it or defend anything outside it.

Third, we are too nervous and jumpy to focus on dialogue. We think we might be missing out on some important email or other update. People can go only so long before checking their handheld devices. This is the issue that people often emphasize, but it’s part of a larger phenomenon.

Fourth, we distrust the desire for a true connection. The person who wants to be our friend must be lacking a “life.” The “normal” person is scattered, well-connected, and casual—and sophisticated enough to distrust the concept of sincerity. If there’s no such thing as a “good person” (or, for that matter, an “interesting person”), then those offering or seeking individual attention can be blithely dismissed.

Oh, lighten up! some will say. Have a bit of a sense of humor. It isn’t that bad if you can laugh. True, but the best wit comes from relation, from laughing with another about something or laughing at oneself with another. Take away the relation, and what wit is left? Some slapstick, maybe; some puns; some political humor; but not the deeply funny, not the convulsion of the soul.

What is the cause of all of this? There are many, but I would blame our acquiescence first and foremost. We do not protect our conversations. It’s easier and more stylish to let them slip away.

I say “we,” but I am divided. I both participate in this and resist it, as many others likely do. The challenge, then, is to gather up the resistance: to dare to speak with another person, just one, for a stretch of time.

The Dialogue of Thought with Others

I have not yet read Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind, but it will be among my next books. In an article in the Times Higher Education Supplement (quoted by Cynthia Haven), Jon Nixon writes, “For [Arendt], thinking was diametrically opposed to ideology: ideology demands assent, is founded on certainty, and determines our behaviours within fixed horizons of expectation; thinking, on the other hand, requires dissent, dwells in uncertainty and expands our horizons by acknowledging our agency. It is the task of education — and therefore of the university — to ensure that a space for such thinking remains open and accessible.”

What kind of thinking is this? We talk often about “critical thinking” but don’t define it carefully enough. According to Arendt, it is the “dialogue of thought.” It is both introspective and responsive. Both aspects are essential.

Let me play with this idea a bit. If your thoughts are introspective but without dialogue, you end up in a rut; you have nothing to temper or shake your view of the world. You go around and around with the same thoughts; maybe you negate them, maybe you insist on them, but you get used to seeing them swirl around, clockwise and counterclockwise, the same ones over and over.

If you are only responsive, then you have no response at all; you depend so much on what others say that you cannot understand their words. You seek wisdom but then accept or reject it flatly instead of taking it in. You seek knowledge but apply it without imagination or play. You fear the opinion of others but crave it at the same time.

The life of the mind, the kind Arendt holds up, requires a combination of aloneness and dialogue — but what combination? It is unique for each situation and person; it does not stay constant but must be recalibrated again and again. It breaks apart and comes together. There are moments of clarity and rapport and longer stretches of fumbling. The very search for the right proportions is individual and particular; my thinking will not be like anyone else’s, but its very character makes it capable of dialogue. In other words, to have a life of the mind, one must be prepared for constant and subtle dissent: not the opinionated kind, but the kind that allows for the unusual.

Depend on the opinions of others, and your thoughts become rags, with no firmness or fineness of their own.

Insist on your own opinion, and your thoughts become sticks.

The ideal, though, is not a pair of knitting needles with yarn, although that has its own place. There is no instrument or product here, at least not the kinds that can be delimited. There is only life, and in life there is everything.

The Ubiquitous Team

Humans enjoy (and sometimes suffer from) a richness of relations. We first form bonds with family members, then start to make friends of different kinds. As we get older, we join groups, collaborate with others, and participate in many kinds of associations. Throughout all of this, solitude allows us to make sense of our relationships, come back to ourselves, and regather our strength and thoughts. Often relations change or break; often they renew themselves in different forms.

Today the concept of the “team” has overtaken all other associations. Just about every group gets called a “team”; and relations outside of teams get short shrift. It is even common to address people as “team.” The problem is not with teams or teamwork but with their ubiquity: the insistence that everyone be part of a team and the suggestion that any resistance at all to the team is a show of personal selfishness or weakness.

The team is just one form of association. Its role is to work toward a concrete goal in a tightly coordinated manner. For instance, if you are an athletic team, your goal is to score more points than the opposing team. You work together toward that end. No single athlete’s brilliance matters unless it contributes to that goal. Likewise, if you are working with others on fundraising (for instance) and have a specific target to achieve, then those contributing to the achievement of the goal are acting as team members.

But there are many forms of collaboration and association that are not quite team-like. A musical ensemble, for instance, is not typically called a “team” (though this is changing as the “team” denomination spreads over onto everything). Although musicians work tightly together, there is a soul to what they do, a kind of solitude to each contribution. Also, the goal is somewhat concrete but not only concrete. A concert goes beyond attaining a goal.

In addition, many associations benefit from the differences and divergences of the members. The work may not be tightly coordinated at all. For instance, in a college English department, the faculty may have different areas of specialty and different approaches to literature. Insofar as they can engage in dialogue, insofar as they have enough common ground, and insofar as the students benefit from their differences, it is good for their efforts not to be too strictly defined and pieced together. As the economist John Jewkes noted in 1958, overemphasis on teamwork can diminish not only individuals, but dialogue between them.

Beyond that, the richest personal and professional associations are often not group relationships, but one-on-one collaborations, friendships, and partnerships. Rarely can a group attain the understanding, rapport, and sympathy that exists between two. When the team is treated as the pinnacle of relations, even personal conversation, even original ideas get subordinated to the team. There is subtle pressure to include others in conversation at all times, to avoid saying things that stand out, to give others credit for one’s own work, and to reserve one’s highest praises for the team.

Teams and teamwork are not bad in themselves; they have an important place in daily life. Most of us have situations where we need to work tightly with others and where our own thoughts and wishes must recede for a while. Yet there is also work that we do better alone or with select others–and work that isn’t quite teamwork. Also, we must not always be working; there must be room and time for thought, exploration, rest, and laughter.

Learning to serve a larger endeavor is also valuable–but there are times not to do so, and many ways of doing so. It is at least as important to diverge from the group–when such divergence is genuine–and to question group assumptions. This may interfere with “teamwork” in the sort run but may actually enrich the work and the relations. As far as I know, we only get one life on earth. It would be a shame to waste it by flattening oneself.

So, without disparaging the team in itself, without dismissing its specific value, I resist its ubiquity with all my heart and soul. There are many more ways to be with oneself and others.

Sleep and Work

When you are running raw and ragged from early morning until late at night, getting four or five hours of sleep per night, a full night of rest brings surprising clarity and strength. Thoughts arrange and complete themselves, emotions settle, and even the face loses its streaks and strains. So it is ironic that, feeling rested, I had a temptation to stay home from synagogue and get work done. (Yes, I do write and work on Shabbat–but going to shul is one of my unbreakable rituals.) I thought: I could catch up with grading, prepare for the many events this week, clean up my place, and so forth–a tempting and reasonable array. Then I realized that the very urge came from a rested state, and the rested state is nothing to take for granted. So I will trek to shul and honor this rest for a few hours more.

It has been an eventful few weeks–with the release of the second issue of CONTRARIWISE, the end of the marking period (I have about a hundred tests to grade this weekend), and more. My article “You Are Embarked: How a Philosophy Curriculum Took Shape and Took Off” just appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of American Educator. I have many ideas for blog posts, articles, stories, and so forth–and hope to complete some of them soon.

A Legal Metaphor in Sonnet 30?

Recently I stumbled on commentary that stated blithely that Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30 (“When to the sessions of sweet silent thought”) was filled with legal metaphor: that the word “sessions” acted as a metaphor for court sessions, “summon” for the act of summoning to court, and so on down the line. I found this strange, since I did not hear a legal metaphor in the opening lines at all. I looked up the words in the OED and found that both “session” and “summon” were used as both legal and non-legal terms in Shakespeare’s time and earlier (and even in Shakespeare’s own work).

Then I read something that mentioned Edward Hubler’s idea, developed in The Sense of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, that Shakespeare is using “quasi-legal” vocabulary here. This idea strikes me as fruitful. I will take Hubler’s book out of the library soon and report on what it says, but for now, I propose that in Sonnet 30 Shakespeare uses “sessions” and “summon” both as legal terms and as non-legal terms–in the same instance–and that this contradiction is the very meaning of the poem.

Here is the sonnet in full:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,
And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanished sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoanèd moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.

Listen to the first two lines: “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past….” The repeated “s” gives a sense of silence; the words “sweet” and “silent” immediately create an uncourtlike atmosphere. There’s a sharp contradiction between “sessions” (in the legal sense) and “sweet silent thought”–so one is pushed to think of these sessions instead as times of sitting. The “up” of “summon up” corroborates this: one can “summon up” thoughts, but one doesn’t typically “summon up” someone to court. So far, any legal metaphor, if present at all, is questionable and hidden.

The next four lines likewise lack any kind of legal metaphor; in addition, they lack any reference to detailed reckoning, claiming, or counting (except perhaps in the phrase “dear time’s waste”). Instead, they describe a more general woe:

I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,

“Death’s dateless night” is an important phrase here, and one that’s easy to overlook; the night of death is dateless because it ultimately doesn’t matter when a death happens; once gone, the friend cannot be brought back. But there is something hopeful about the act of “drowning” an eye “unused to flow”; there seems to be some kind of renewal, however painful, some sense that the “precious friends” are just hidden, not entirely gone.

Then, in the next six lines, something shifts markedly. Metaphors of accounts and reckoning enter full force, making one reinterpret the initial “sessions” and “summon”:

And weep afresh love’s long since cancelled woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanished sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o’er
The sad account of fore-bemoanèd moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.

Legal and financial images are pounding down: cancelled, expense, grievances, account, pay. Yet even here, there is subtle word-play and contradiction: “grieve at grievances” has two senses of “grieve,” and “account” means both “tally” and “tale.” (The verb “tell” makes this “account” into a tale, but then “pay” turns it into a tally.) Also, what is going on with the strange “fore-bemoanèd moan”? “Fore-bemoanèd” means “moaned previously,” but why would it be a moan that was previously moaned? I see this as layers of thought on thought–not a precise accounting, in other words, but a dreamy one.

So, even in the references to reckoning and accounting, there are suggestions that the things to be counted cannot be, and that counting is not the point here. Then we come to the last lines:

But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.

The meaning is clear on the surface: the thoughts of a friend redeem all of the losses and end the sorrows. But it is interesting that the entire sonnet contains only two references to thought: “thought” in the first line and “think” in the thirteenth. The sonnet comes around full circle to the “sessions of sweet silent thought”–which are emphatically different from court sessions. Along the way, it has danced with other kinds of sessions, but they do not prevail.

In that sense, Sonnet 30 is about the difference between material reckoning–the kind that takes place in court–and silent thought, which follows different laws and carries different wealth.

More after I read what Hubler has to say about this sonnet.


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