“God keep me from ever completing anything”

IMG_6426Today we celebrated and lamented the conclusion of the Epic course–and the Political Philosophy course–at the Dallas Institute’s Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers. The laments are short-lived, since this work can never be finished. I have more to learn as I reread these texts, teach them again, hear others speak about them, turn them in my mind, and carry them into my life.

Thanks to everyone who made this a soaring and diving three weeks, through the reading, discussion, listening, and more. I have much more to say, but the words are coming too slowly right now. Soon I will write about The Revolt of Job (Jób lázadása), a film I have watched in four successive Epic summers here (in 2012, 2014, 2016, and 2018), and which has become one of my favorite films of any time or place. I look forward to next summer and to the October 30 event.

I took the photo here in Dallas. The post’s title is a quote from Moby-Dick.

Why the “Next Big Idea Club” Is a Bad Idea

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I recently learned that Malcolm Gladwell, Susan Cain, Daniel Pink, and Adam Grant have started a book club called the “Next Big Idea Club,” whose goal is to draw attention to new books that are “Groundbreaking, Science-Based, and Life-Changing (Actionable).” The book selections come with “video e-courses” that “highlight key concepts” (in case readers can’t figure them out for themselves), written course materials, exclusive author interviews, and an invite-only Facebook group.

In other words, the club leaders emphasize books that appear to have not only scientific basis, but clear takeaways–immediate applications to life–and then take the additional step of distilling those takeaways for the readers, thus affirming that the books should be put into action right away rather than thought upon, questioned, disputed.

And there lies about a third of the problem. I have no issue with the idea of a book club, no matter who leads it, when it involves selecting books that one loves (or finds especially interesting) and bringing them to the club members. But books deserve time and rumination; instead of being translated immediately into “actionable” takeaways, they should take up residence in the mind for a while. It is the dialogue (an approximate term) between author and reader that makes for memorable reading. The books that influence me the most have nothing immediately “actionable” about them; rather, they get me to think, they provoke me to return to the pages.

So that’s the first problem: the emphasis on the “actionable.” The second lies in the so-called scientific basis. Some of these books may well have strong scientific grounding. But science involves dogged and keen questioning–so the most scientific books will likely have the most uncertainties. With some exceptions, they will be the ones least conducive to takeaways. For a book to be both scientific and actionable at once, the scientific aspect may have to undergo simplification. The book club leaders, apparently, hasten the process of simplification by handing summaries and key points to the readers. This not only reduces the science itself but discourages scientific thinking.

The third problem lies in the priority given to “groundbreaking” books. We often don’t know right away whether a new book is groundbreaking; it takes time to put it in proper context and observe its influence and effects. Sometimes a seemingly new idea has many unknown antecedents; sometimes a seemingly grand solution fails to pan out. Rather than look for “groundbreaking” books, I would seek books that demonstrate intellect, probing, and wit: books that allow the reader to reconsider previous assumptions without latching on to false certainties.

The book club itself is nothing new; Gladwell appears to have been running it in some form for years. Kathryn Schulz wrote of his “Big Idea Club” in 2011 (in New York Magazine):

Big Idea books have been around for a long time; see The Communist Manifesto. But the Big Idea Book Club … is a recent phenomenon. Its accidental founder and president in apparent perpetuity is Malcolm Gladwell. Its membership, like the membership of most powerful groups, is largely male. Its combined sales are stratospheric; whatever these books are hawking, we can’t stop buying it.

And then, toward the end of the article:

There is no rule, process, peer group, leader, or best seller that can absolve us of the responsibility of thinking our way through life on our own two feet. What irks me most about this infinite parade of gigundo solutions isn’t their glibness or even the borderline theology (of some) and borderline Babbitry (of others) involved in promising audiences easy, happy, profitable ideas. Nope. What irks me is that when you rigidly apply grand theories to everybody, sooner or later everybody feels like nobody, whether you’re in Communist Belgrade or the local DMV. There is a reason we call such systems soul-crushing: They ignore or annihilate individual difference and inner life.

There you have it. Some ideas are big by nature, some medium-sized, some small. It would be folly to avoid an idea on account of its size. But it is dangerous to pursue or herald an idea because it is big. The bigness should give some pause. Do we really have room in this idea? Does it hold enough truth? Or has it been swept in, like so many others, only to drift out again later?

Some of the club’s selections may well be worth reading. Of the twenty that Adam Grant listed for 2018, I would be most likely to read Melissa Dahl’s Cringeworthy. I probably would not get to it until 2020 or later; I have many books waiting and generally like to read slowly. In any case, if I do read this book, it will be to consider the ideas and stories, not to apply them directly to my life. In books, it is the indirect applications–the use of words, the gestures of wisdom–that influence my life the most. The big idea? I take it in stride.

I have criticized the American emphasis on the Big Idea many times, in many places. (See, for instance, “The Folly of the Big Idea: How a Liberal Arts Education Puts Fads in Perspective,” American Educator, Winter 2012-2013). But I now come upon a new point: no matter what the size of an idea, I expect to be able to consider it in my own terms, on my own time–and not to accept someone else’s summaries or rush it into action.

Well, then, don’t join the club! someone might retort. No one is making you join. True, true, but that’s a moot point; I don’t join book clubs in general. Through my teaching, I have many opportunities to read with others; outside of work and projects, my time for reading is so scarce that I like to choose books on my own, often old books that I have read years ago or that I have been wanting to read for years. No, my own non-membership is not the point here. Rather, I argue and long for a different kind of reading: a kind that allows for liberty of thought, judges an idea by its merits, delights in verbal courage, and suspends summary and action.

I took the photo in Szeged in May.

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

Is There a Human Project?

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It is the season of cherries and ice cream, of ducklings and Scarce Copper butterflies (I think that’s the type in the picture above), of wrapping up the school year and saying goodbye for the summer. Also, the book is almost in press; the last corrections have been made, and I must now think about the release in the fall. While doing this, I find myself questioning certain phrases in the book. At one point I mention the human project. Is there a human project? Or is this yet another phrase that has lost meaning over time?

It exists but abounds with contradictions, oppositions, anomalies, impossibilities. Drawing partially on George Kateb’s Human Dignity, I would define the human project, in part, as our ongoing assumption (and abdication) of responsibility as stewards of nature, including our own. Humans alone have the capacity to act as stewards–or not. Acting as steward involves recognizing what one has done, or can do, to help or harm oneself and others–and who these others are, and why it matters. In this recognition, humans have advanced somewhat, in some ways, over time. Certain things that we recognize as wrong, such as slavery, were accepted not long ago.

Last week I introduced my eleventh-grade students to the song “Amazing Grace,” which a few already knew. I thought it was important for American civilization, especially since we were now touching on religion. I did not know the origins of the song (having missed the Broadway musical and the movie and forgotten a good bit of history); when I read about it, I heard it in a new way.

It was composed by the English Anglican minister John Newton (1725-1807), who, prior to his Christian conversion, had been forced into the slave trade. He had rebelled so often aboard the ships–not on behalf of the slaves, but on his own behalf–that he had undergone lashings, demotions, and finally slavery, when the crew left him in West Africa with a slave dealer. He was finally rescued and brought back to England; during the voyage, he had a spiritual conversion. Slowly, over time, this conversion brought him to abhor the slave trade. This did not happen linearly; he returned to the slave trade, fell ill, and underwent a new conversion. He continued in the trade a few more years, and then in 1754 renounced it completely.

His tract Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade, written in 1788, thirty-four years after he abandoned the business, repudiates the enslavement and trafficking of humans. It begins:

The nature and effects of that unhappy and disgraceful branch of commerce, which has long been maintained on the Coast of Africa, with the sole, and professed design of purchasing our fellow-creatures, in order to supply our West-India islands and the American colonies, when they were ours, with Slaves; is now generally understood. So much light has been thrown upon the subject, by many able pens; and so many respectable persons have already engaged to use their utmost influence, for the suppression of a traffic, which contradicts the feelings of humanity; that it is hoped, this stain of our National character will soon be wiped out.

If I attempt, after what has been done, to throw my mite into the public stock of information, it is less from an apprehension that my interference is necessary, than from a conviction that silence, at such a time, and on such an occasion, would, in me, be criminal. If my testimony should not be necessary, or serviceable, yet, perhaps, I am bound, in conscience, to take shame to myself by a public confession, which, however sincere, comes too late to prevent, or repair, the misery and mischief to which I have, formerly, been accessary.

I hope it will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me, that I was, once, an active instrument, in a business at which my heart now shudders.

Hearing those undertones in “Amazing Grace” (although the hymn preceded the tract by two decades or so), I understand the song not as a paean to the born-again experience but as the author’s recognition of profound error. To see that one has been terribly wrong and to change one’s life accordingly: this allows for something of a human project. For by writing what he saw and learned, Newton allowed others to see it too.

I don’t want to be glib about this. Looking at the picture below, I would say that ducks do a bit better with their projects than humans; they lead their little ones, which grow up to have little ones of their own. But ducks also kill ducklings that they do not recognize–and suffer no qualms of conscience, as far as I know. It is not that we humans do so well with our conscience–we continue to do things that we repudiate or simply fail to question–but our conscience also matures, not only through experience in the world, but through encounters with books, speeches, music, plays. In listening to something, we come to take ourselves in measure. Or at least we may. To the extent that we do, we participate in a human project.

I ask myself why I didn’t notice the Broadway musical Amazing Grace, which would have taught me something, even fleetingly, about John Newton. I think I unthinkingly ignored it because of the title. I had heard the song sung mockingly so many times that I had absorbed the mockery. That reminds me to be less sure of my mockeries, especially borrowed ones. Mockery has a place in writing–there would be little satire without it–but it must be informed. In this case mine, though never overt, was also ignorant until now.

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I made a few revisions to this piece after posting it.

Celebrating CONTRARIWISE from Afar

Vol 5 CoverIn honor of today’s CONTRARIWISE celebration at Book Culture in New York City, I thought I’d post a partial review of the fifth issue–partial in the double sense of “biased” and “fragmentary.” It’s biased because I served as faculty advisor for the first three issues; fragmentary because I will comment on only a fraction of it. What a beautiful, playful, inquisitive volume, and what a joy to see CONTRARIWISE continuing onward!

It has many traditional CONTRARIWISE features and touches: the cover art, a Cast and Crew section, the Infrequently Asked Questions, the contests, certain topics and forms, and the Index of Essentials, and others; each of these comes across in a fresh way. The pieces make you laugh, pause, read slowly, think, and return.

Jeanyna Garcia’s “Cooking à la Buber” relates cooking to Martin Buber’s idea of the I-Thou relation. “As weird as it may sound,” she writes, “if there isn’t a special attachment between you and the food, or if there isn’t diligence while you are preparing the food, then you might as well be cooking something inedible.”

In “The Story of Envy,” a dialogue that takes place over the years, Theo Frye Yanos (who has contributed to every issue of CONTRARIWISE) takes up tensions between parent and child, longing and limitation, consolation and truth. The piece begins, “Once there was a child. The child was named Envy, and all they wanted was to have a big, colorful house with lots of flowers.” Growing older, more mature (or immature?), and more stubborn, Envy longs to be understood rather than wished away.

Natalie Schmit’s “From Folly” not only made me roar but captured something of the texts in question. She wrote the piece for an assignment: students had to imagine a conversation between characters in writings they had read in philosophy class that year. The resulting epistolary exchange (between Desiderius Erasmus’s Folly and a character from Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose”) includes this letter:

Dear Folly,

I asked you not to write to me again. But your thoughts are too serious to ignore. First, how dare you speak of my daughter like that!? She will have a proper marriage to a nice bureaucrat with a nose! I surely have no idea what this “joking” business is. I only have joked one singular time in my life. I do not have any more time for this nonsense. I have more important things to do. Additionally, I have come to suspect this may be sedition? I don’t know, but I want nothing to do with it!

Goodbye forever (for real this time),
Madam Alexandra Grigoryevna
P.S. Do NOT refer to me as Alex!

Speaking of Russian literature, another of my favorites is Melany Garcia’s essay “The Underground Man: Philosopher or Angry Middle-Aged Man?” She argues that Dostoevsky’s Underground Man is not a philosopher; unable to “move forward in understanding his opinions,” he “simply rants and rambles on about them.” That seems believable on the face–but what makes this piece stand out is its keenness. The author examines some of the passages where the Underground Man verges most closely on philosophy–and shows how he stops short or veers off.

I almost forgot! Another favorite is Mario Pereira’s “Logos at Thanatos,” where Aristotle enters a classroom in the Underworld and finds Socrates giving a lesson to a corpse. It begins:

Socrates: And so, only philosophers have the knowledge to divine the forms.

Corpse: Of course.

This reminds me of the old days of CONTRARIWISE, except that it’s different. Of course a corpse says “of course”–but no corpse has done so before, at least not here. There’s a verbal justice to it; the right thing gets said by the right character (to the right character–what do you say to Socrates but “of course”?) at the right time.

Speaking of justice, this year’s international contest, which involved imagining justice as a building, brought in a wealth of pieces. I have previously mentioned the winnersBarnabás Paksi, Hakan Urgancıoğlu, and Gábor Medvegy–but the editors chose to publish additional entries, and with good reason. They are fascinating and different from each other.

The journal takes immense work: planning the issue, announcing contests, inviting and collecting submissions (including art), reviewing them, choosing them, contacting the authors, editing the selected pieces, putting them in layout, designing the cover, proofreading, proofreading again, proofreading still again, sending everything off, waiting, receiving the copies, selling them, planning events, holding them, planning for the next year, and, in addition to all of this, sending out announcements, maintaining the website, updating the Facebook page, handling the finances, finding ways to sell more copies and raise money, updating the documentation, and, alongside everything, delving into topics and texts, thinking about the philosophical ideas themselves.  It “speaks volumes” (five, in fact!) that those now in charge of the journal have given it so much care and thought.

As I promised, I have covered just a fraction of the fifth issue. You can read the rest on your own; that’s better than reading about it! To all those involved in today’s event–which begins in about 20 minutes–I wish you a joyous occasion. Here are a few photos from CONTRARIWISE events of yore.

 

 

 

“Lights, lights, lights”

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The Shakespeare event took place yesterday: beautiful performances, a full house, a feeling of excitement and pride. I am still gathering my thoughts–and hope to gather some more photos and videos, since I was too focused on the performance to take very many, and most of the ones I did take were from the back of the room.

Just minutes before the performance, we faced a big technical problem: whoever had shut down the Technika Háza earlier in the day had also shut off all the lights. To turn the lights on, you need not only access to a special room but knowledge of its location. This, apparently, is a carefully guarded secret. At last one student–the one who had helped me ask the drama teacher for additional props–managed not only to get on the phone with someone who had the information, but to persuade this person to disclose the information to him. Ten minutes before our show, we had lights, and everything went gloriously from there. Fittingly, the last words of the performance were “Lights, lights, lights” (from Hamlet).

Congratulations and thanks to everyone–including the audience–who made this a gracious and moving occasion. I will say more later.

Speaking of events, this Sunday in New York City there will be a CONTRARIWISE celebration at Book Culture! If there were any way for me to attend, I would, but given that I teach on Monday, it’s too far away. It will be in my thoughts, and I will take part of that day to write and post a little review of the fifth issue.

Update: I added a video and two photos to this piece after posting it.

Speaking Shakespeare

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Shakespeare’s language may seem daunting at first (“His discretion, I am sure, cannot carry his valor, for the goose carries not the fox. It is well. Leave it to his discretion, and let us listen to the moon“). Even after reading his work for decades, you may walk into verbal thickets. Still, through these very burrs and thorns (and leaves and petals and bugs), you find out how immediate Shakespeare’s language can be.

That has been happening in these final rehearsals: everyone has been involved, whether as listeners, actors, or supporting actors (the ones who play parts in rehearsals but not in the event). This afternoon, in the classroom, I saw that someone had written on the board, “Jó munkához idő kell” (“Good work takes time”). I don’t know whether that was a comment on the performance or a remnant from a previous class, but it applies here; day by day, the language has been catching on. I sense it in the audience as they watch their classmates perform scenes and monologues for the dozenth, twentieth time. They listen, laugh, turn pages, give cues, murmur along, call out mistakes. When the main actor is not present, they step in and read parts too.

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Students have been memorizing their lines in spades–and each memorization takes the scene to another level. Yes, there are still some giggles and lapses–but even in the past two days, the performers have come far. We have practiced in classrooms large and small, in the schoolyard (as pictured in the two photos above), and in the park; each place brings out something different.

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One student urged me to ask the drama teacher for additional costumes and props. He accompanied me during a break between classes and acted as interpreter–but after the beginning, we had no difficulty communicating. She took out a veil and said, “Ophelia”; she took out a sword and said, “Polonius.” Everything was clear.

We’re just a dress rehearsal away from the performance. “You shall see, it will fall pat as I told you. Yonder she comes.”

 

“I see a voice: now will I to the chink….”

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We have been practicing, day by day, for the May 31 Shakespeare event–just a week away now–which will include three excerpts from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, two excerpts from Hamlet, a simple Renaissance dance, and a few introductions and interludes. The rehearsals have built and built; each time, something has improved, and the mistakes have made memories too.

It has been fun to pull costumes together; a homemade lion costume (in the works–thanks to a student’s mom), plastic wreaths and vines, a lanthorn, a not-so-thorny thornbush, a (stuffed) dog, some crowns, and other props and accoutrements.

Here’s a dialogue from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 1, Scene 1 (recorded May 17):

Here’s one from Act 3, Scene 2, with a different Hermia and Helena (recorded May 22):

Here’s the Wall (“In this same interlude it doth befall / That I, one Snout by name, present a Wall….”)

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I don’t have any Hamlet photos or videos yet (aside from the drawings I posted recently), but that may change soon.

Birches and Books

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William Blake got something right in his ruminative “Auguries of Innocence“:

The Princes Robes & Beggars Rags
Are Toadstools on the Misers Bags
A Truth thats told with bad intent
Beats all the Lies you can invent
It is right it should be so
Man was made for Joy & Woe
And when this we rightly know<
Thro the World we safely go

What a strange and persistent poem; it seems like a long procession of lanterns. I think of it in light of the sad international news of the past few weeks, the joys in my life, the mixture of meanings everywhere.

Today many students were out of the classroom, attending a special event, so I took my eleventh-grade classes to the park, where we went in different directions, looked at something for five minutes, and then converged again to show each other what we had seen. In one session I found roses blooming upward; in another, a weeping birch in the wind.

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During this time, things have been coming along with the book, which now has a jacket design:

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To top it all off, or to lift it up from the foundation, the CONTRARIWISE copies arrived here in Szolnok today! A copy goes to each of the contest winners from my school, another one to the school, and one to me. CONTRARIWISE prevails. I will say more soon.

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Happy Volume 5, CONTRARIWISE!

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Last Thursday I received word that the fifth issue of CONTRARIWISE had just arrived at Columbia Secondary School! Soon we will receive copies here in Szolnok. At that point I will have more to say; for now, congratulations to the writers, editors, faculty advisor, and everyone who brought this about. The journal thrives.

As many readers know, Barnabás Paksi  (Varga Katalin Gimnázium, Szolnok, Hungary) won first place in this year’s CONTRARIWISE International Contest; Gábor Medvegy (also from Varga Katalin) shares the second place with Hakan Urgancıoğlu (Sainte Pulchérie Lisesi, Istanbul, Turkey). Their pieces appear in this issue.

There will be a CONTRARIWISE event at Book Culture (536 112th St., New York City) on Sunday, June 3, at 3 p.m. If you are in the vicinity, go! It’s an incomparable experience. Here are photos from the 2014, 2015, and 2016 events (at Word Up, Bowery Poetry, and Book Culture).

“Call me what instrument you will….”

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When my students were reading and acting out Hamlet III.ii, I interrupted them so that we could look again at this dialogue. The Players have just passed through, playing recorders (that is, woodwind instruments); Hamlet asks for one and resumes his conversation with Guildenstern:

HAMLET
I do not well understand that. Will you play upon this pipe?

GUILDENSTERN
My lord, I cannot.

HAMLET
I pray you.

GUILDENSTERN
Believe me, I cannot.

HAMLET
I do beseech you.

GUILDENSTERN
I know no touch of it, my lord.

HAMLET
‘Tis as easy as lying: govern these ventages with your fingers and thumb, give it breath with your mouth, and it will discourse most eloquent music. Look you, these are the stops.

GUILDENSTERN
But these cannot I command to any utterance of harmony; I have not the skill.

HAMLET
Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me! 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 my lowest note to the top of my compass: and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ; yet cannot you make it speak. ‘Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call  me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, yet you cannot play upon me.

This is one of the hundreds of reasons why people should read Hamlet. His trick reveals truth; by seeming to change the subject, by fooling Guildenstern into admitting that he cannot play the recorder, he shows the vanity of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s ploys. (The two have colluded with King Claudius and Queen Gertrude in observing Hamlet’s every move; after each conversation with Hamlet,  they report back to the King and Queen. Hamlet has figured this out.)

But Hamlet’s words go far beyond the immediate place and time. How many people pretend to know what lies inside others–where their stops are, how to sound them; how much of today’s technology is aimed at that very end! Everywhere we go–whether on Facebook or on hard ground–someone sums us up, puts us in a category, predicts what we will do next. Even though the attention isn’t as fixedly on most of us as it is on Hamlet here, we receive “mass personalized” scrutiny, which, while effective at predicting purchasing patterns, voting tendencies (and other such things), fails, fortunately, to determine who we are.

It is not just through social media and marketing that this occurs. There’s a fad of sorting out “good” and “bad” people and sweeping away all vestiges of the “bad.” I see this in certain aspects of the #MeToo movement (for example, many publishers are now halting publication, and sellers distribution, of books by authors who allegedly harassed women, as though the claims of harassment invalidated the authors and their works). I see it in the careless use of the words “fascist” and “monster” to describe people with whom one disagrees. (Yet the modern analogy is flawed, for reasons I will discuss shortly.)

In outwitting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet shows them that they cannot diminish him. “Why, look you now,” he says, “how unworthy a thing you make of me!” To treat a person as playable and knowable is to deny that person’s dignity; even a little instrument cannot just be played at will, and Hamlet much less so.

Hamlet has mastered the very game he derides; he plays Rosencrantz and Guildenstern just as they cannot play him. He calls playing the recorder “as easy as lying” and explains: “govern these ventages with your fingers and thumb, give it breath with your mouth, and it will discourse most eloquent music. Look you, these are the stops.” This is indeed what Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been trying clumsily to do: to govern (or rather, cover) certain ventages (their true purposes) and play out their deceit. Hamlet does not cover his stops; rather, it seems, he governs them, showing truth when and how he wishes. (There is ongoing controversy over Hamlet’s sanity and self-control; I see him as brilliantly in control here, though not everywhere.)

So there is a problem with Hamlet: he continually resists others diminution, yet in mocking them he diminishes them himself. Many readers, including me, enjoy the way he makes fun of Polonius, whom he has written off as a doddering fool. I wonder whether Hamlet has tricked me too; yes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem false as can be, but might there not be slightly more to Polonius, for instance, than Hamlet would allow? He has nothing close to Hamlet’s wit, but are humans measured by their wit?

It’s a misreading of Hamlet, then, to treat it as a discourse on human dignity. There is something else at stake here, a grappling with truth and doubt. Hamlet has seen his father’s ghost, has heard directly from him about the “foul and unnatural murder,” yet even he worries that his imaginations may have been “as foul / As Vulcan’s stithy.” If the ghost’s revelations are true, then Hamlet must avenge his father’s death; if they are not, he must somehow put this thought aside. To find the truth, he has the Players play a play; “the play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”

The “play” here is not just the actors’ performance, but a series of plays upon plays; he sees the others playing with him, and he outplays them at their games. The one with the truest view–Hamlet–will win, but he can win only by losing.

Literature (at its best) cannot be translated into messages about life, but it can open up language and thought. Hamlet does not say that it’s wrong to diminish others.  But through its poetry it gives us a troubled, unsummable, brilliant soul.

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I took the two photos this week.