Ugly Bags of Mostly Water

The other day, the kids and I watched a local production of Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline“. It’s a fairy tale about Cymbeline, king of Britain.

It’s one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, in part because of the hilarious caricature the bard makes of the physical reductionist mindset. You know the type of person I’m talking about. Evolution formed man from dust, and like the silicon-based life form in the old episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, this person looks at humans and sees only the constituent parts. We humans are “ugly bags of mostly water“.

To this critic, our component parts such as atoms, molecules, and neurons are the primary reality. He insists that love is an illusion, and that life has no intrinsic value. If you’re not sophisticated or courageous enough to agree with him, you’re a superstitious nut. Such people might remind us of a child with William’s Syndrome:

Asked to draw a bicycle, a person with Down’s syndrome will come up with something that’s crude but recognizable. Someone with William’s syndrome, on the other hand, will produce a drawing with the person underneath the bike, the chain stretched out below the wheels, and the pedals off to the lower left, connected to nothing. All the parts are there, but they’re not in the correct relationship to each other.

Bellugi has shown as much with a test in which she briefly presents a card with a large letter D made up of many small Ys and asks children to reproduce what they saw. Normal children reproduce the figure accurately. Children with Down syndrome generally draw a large D, ignoring the little Ys. Children with Williams syndrome, however, will draw a collection of Ys, but it won’t be arranged in the shape of a D. One group seems to see just the forest, while the other sees only the trees.

Cloten and Posthumous

In Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline”, the king’s daughter, Imogen, is in love with Posthumous, who is in exile. Imogen’s stepbrother, Cloten, attempts to woo her away from Posthumous, at the prompting of his mother (and Imogen’s stepmother) the queen. The characters of Cloten and Posthumous are typically played by the same actor, but their actions and personalities couldn’t be more different. Cloten is boorish, completely oblivious, and very physical. Posthumous is chivalrous, intense, and a model of elevated character. Shakespeare provides Cloten with dialogue that is laugh-out-loud funny at several points, and a great parody of a person who can’t see the forest for the trees. “Cymbeline” is one of Shakespeare’s more complicated plays, and I won’t even attempt to summarize the plot here. I’ll just share a sample of the lines that slice so sharply against the physicalist mindset; you’re sure to notice many more if you watch the play yourself.

At one point in the play, Cloten’s advisors tell him that music is a good way to woo a woman. He turns both music and wooing into a hopelessly physical activity, starting his song with human body parts and ending with animal body parts:

CLOTEN
I would this music would come: I am advised to give
her music o’ mornings; they say it will penetrate.

Enter Musicians
Come on; tune: if you can penetrate her with your
fingering, so; we’ll try with tongue too: if none
will do, let her remain; but I’ll never give o’er.
First, a very excellent good-conceited thing;
after, a wonderful sweet air, with admirable rich
words to it: and then let her consider.

SONG
Hark, hark! the lark at heaven’s gate sings,
And Phoebus ‘gins arise,
His steeds to water at those springs
On chaliced flowers that lies;
And winking Mary-buds begin
To ope their golden eyes:
With every thing that pretty is,
My lady sweet, arise:
Arise, arise.

CLOTEN
So, get you gone. If this penetrate, I will
consider your music the better: if it do not, it is
a vice in her ears, which horse-hairs and
calves’-guts, nor the voice of unpaved eunuch to
boot, can never amend.

Eventually, Imogen spurns Cloten, telling him that he is beneath Posthumous’s “meanest garment”. Cloten becomes obsessed with the garment, and with getting revenge.

IMOGEN
He never can meet more mischance than come
To be but named of thee. His meanest garment,
That ever hath but clipp’d his body, is dearer
In my respect than all the hairs above thee,
Were they all made such men.

CLOTEN
‘His garment!’ Now the devil–

CLOTEN
‘His garment!’

CLOTEN
You have abused me:
‘His meanest garment!’

CLOTEN
I’ll be revenged:
‘His meanest garment!’ Well.

As his hatred of Imogen grows, so does his inability to see her as anything other than parts. He literally can’t see the person for the body parts:

CLOTEN
I love and hate her: for she’s fair and royal,
And that she hath all courtly parts more exquisite
Than lady, ladies, woman; from every one
The best she hath, and she, of all compounded,
Outsells them all; I love her therefore: but
Disdaining me and throwing favours on
The low Posthumus slanders so her judgment
That what’s else rare is choked; and in that point
I will conclude to hate her, nay, indeed,
To be revenged upon her.

Like Werther in Goethe’s “Sorrows of Young Werther”, Cloten’s speech becomes hyphenated as he loses his mind. Fixated on the garments, he declares his desire to see both Posthumous and Imogen completely humiliated and subjugated, like so many objects:

CLOTEN
Meet thee at Milford-Haven!–I forgot to ask him one
thing; I’ll remember’t anon:–even there, thou
villain Posthumus, will I kill thee. I would these
garments were come. She said upon a time–the
bitterness of it I now belch from my heart–that she
held the very garment of Posthumus in more respect
than my noble and natural person together with the
adornment of my qualities. With that suit upon my
back, will I ravish her: first kill him, and in her
eyes; there shall she see my valour, which will then
be a torment to her contempt. He on the ground, my
speech of insultment ended on his dead body, and
when my lust hath dined,–which, as I say, to vex
her I will execute in the clothes that she so
praised,–to the court I’ll knock her back, foot
her home again. She hath despised me rejoicingly,
and I’ll be merry in my revenge.

The line “knock her back, foot her home” is pure Shakespeare genius. Cloten is now so far gone that he is using body parts as adverbs and verbs! And one can only chuckle at Cloten’s insistence that he is a “natural person”. Indeed!

Cloten dresses himself up in Posthumous’s garments, and determines to cut off Posthumous’s head. He figures that he will get away with it, since his mother (and Imogen’s stepmother) is the queen:

CLOTEN
I am near to the place where they should meet, if
Pisanio have mapped it truly. How fit his garments
serve me! Why should his mistress, who was made by
him that made the tailor, not be fit too? the
rather–saving reverence of the word–for ’tis said
a woman’s fitness comes by fits. Therein I must
play the workman. I dare speak it to myself–for it
is not vain-glory for a man and his glass to confer
in his own chamber–I mean, the lines of my body are
as well drawn as his; no less young, more strong,
not beneath him in fortunes, beyond him in the
advantage of the time, above him in birth, alike
conversant in general services, and more remarkable
in single oppositions: yet this imperceiverant
thing loves him in my despite. What mortality is!
Posthumus, thy head, which now is growing upon thy
shoulders, shall within this hour be off; thy
mistress enforced; thy garments cut to pieces before
thy face: and all this done, spurn her home to her
father; who may haply be a little angry for my so
rough usage; but my mother, having power of his
testiness, shall turn all into my commendations.

Very soon after uttering this proclamation against Posthumous, Cloten provokes a young man named Guiderius, and Guiderius cuts Cloten’s head off. Like Haman, Cloten’s own words become his death sentence. His head was at the top of the mountain, now it is beneath the fish of the sea:

GUIDERIUS
With his own sword,
Which he did wave against my throat, I have ta’en
His head from him: I’ll throw’t into the creek
Behind our rock; and let it to the sea,
And tell the fishes he’s the queen’s son, Cloten:
That’s all I reck.

GUIDERIUS
Where’s my brother?
I have sent Cloten’s clotpoll down the stream,
In embassy to his mother: his body’s hostage
For his return.

Of course, it is not fitting for commoners to chop off the heads of nobles, no matter how boorish and clueless those nobles may be. One of the most moving parts of the play comes when Guiderius proudly tells the king that he has murdered Cloten:

GUIDERIUS
Let me end the story:
I slew him there.

CYMBELINE
Marry, the gods forfend!
I would not thy good deeds should from my lips
Pluck a bard sentence: prithee, valiant youth,
Deny’t again.

GUIDERIUS
I have spoke it, and I did it.

CYMBELINE
He was a prince.

GUIDERIUS
A most incivil one: the wrongs he did me
Were nothing prince-like; for he did provoke me
With language that would make me spurn the sea,
If it could so roar to me: I cut off’s head;
And am right glad he is not standing here
To tell this tale of mine.

CYMBELINE
I am sorry for thee:
By thine own tongue thou art condemn’d, and must
Endure our law: thou’rt dead.

This dialogue is clearly intended to mirror the story of Saul’s death in 2 Samuel 1:1-16. While nobody liked Saul or Cloten, neither were fair game for murder. Saul was theanointed, and Cloten was the son of a queen. Just as Cymbeline reluctantly concludes, “by thine own tongue thou art condemn’d”, David says, “Your blood be on your own head. Your own mouth testified against you”.

In Shakespeare’s version of the story, though, Guiderius is shown to be even more noble than the noble Cloten, and is thus redeemed. While it takes noble blood to redeem Guiderius, we also see that Guiderius is in every manner of action more noble than Cloten. His confession is not a witless blunder against sovereign order, but is instead an affirmation of noble principles that he was willing to die for: “With language that would make me spurn the sea, If it could so roar to me: I cut off’s head”.

Like all good fairy tales, the story ends happily.

Hell Bank Notes

Dandelionsmith has a great story about a family memento; a stone that he took from the foundation of his great grandfather’s house. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but here are some excerpts. First, he recounts the hike out to find the old homestead:

To get a picture of the continuing saga, imagine a square section of land (640 acres) bounded on all four sides, first by six strands of barbed-wire fence, and beyond that, either a gravel or a tar road. Inside the fence was close-cropped pasture grass, lichen-covered rocks, clumps of thistle, and at least a quarter-mile walk. The sun was high, the air was dry, and the wind was imperceptible. Our sweat flowed while the grasshoppers jumped. I took the tyke on my shoulders when she couldn’t keep up the pace set by my septuagenarian parents (and their pace is another story).

And taking the stone from the foundation:

The house, like many others of its time in the late 1800s, had a stone foundation. That is, many large stones from the surrounding land were gathered together and with mortar added, formed the foundation of the building. In time, the old foundation crumbled, leaving the stones somewhat exposed. Figuring the building’s lack of integrity would cause total collapse before I had another chance to return, I pulled out a rock the size of a Thanksgiving turkey. It wasn’t supporting the structure, anymore, and I thought it might be nice to have the rose-tinted stone as a way to remember the old place.

And finally, the effect that this memento has on the family:

That rock moved with us from Iowa to Montana, from Montana to Granite Falls, from Granite Falls to our former country house, and from that house to this. Every time I look at it, I remember. Every time I look at it, I think of sharing the story with the younger children.

This story really resonated with me, because it’s almost identical to an experience of mine, but also quite different.

My story involves a visit with the kids and the spry septuagenarian in-laws to see the graves of the ancestors. We, too, had to get permission from a suspicious tenant before hiking through the sweltering heat in a rural area outside Shanghai. And I, too, had to carry the youngest, while the oldsters soldiered on ahead. I had explained to my kids that we were going to pay our respects to the ancestors, much as we would by laying flowers on a grave in America.

Before setting out on the hike, the in-laws had spent some time haggling with a local merchant for things to burn at the grave site. I liked the fact that our kids would be able to see the graves of their ancestors going back several generations, and form lasting memories. I was somewhat less enthused about the ritual of sacrifice to dead people, and we agreed that the kids needn’t participate.

When we arrived at the grave site and opened the bag of merchandise, the kids and I had quite a surprise. The bag was full of fake paper money emblazoned clearly in English with the words “Hell Bank Note”. I immediately assumed that someone with a cruel sense of humor had played a prank on the unsuspecting Chinese by stamping the money with “Hell Bank” in a foreign language. Startled, I asked my wife, “Do Chinese people know what this says in English?” She assured me that, yes, Chinese people were intentionally burning Hell bank notes for the ancestors. Of course, the first question the kids asked was, “Does this mean the ancestors are in Hell?!?”. The next question was, “How will they spend the money if it just burned up?”

It certainly left a lasting impression on the kids, but not exactly the impression I expected.

I have to assume that the burning of paper money is relatively new, since China hasn’t had paper money for more than a few centuries. And I’ve since learned that people burn paper houses and paper Porsches. I’m well aware that there is some semblance of a rationale given for these practices. But I can’t shake the feeling that some cruel person played a malicious joke on the unsuspecting population by introducing these relatively new traditions.

Participation

Arturo Vasquez on poetry:

It occurred to me while thinking about this how we naturally assume that prose is the “first” language and that “poetry” is a development from it. But why should this be so? Surely animals are born, copulate and die quite efficiently (sometimes more efficiently) than the “speaking” animal. Were the first words spoken by humans “Sell consols and buy blue chip”? Don’t you think it would have been more like:

Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus,
that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans.

This sums up what we’ve lost in the modern age. What is called “poetry” today is not some fanciful embellishment that we use to “pretty up” our prose. It’s our original, most authentic, and purest way of expressing. In modern times, we give priority to objectivity, and thus we value analytical and reductive prose. But that’s quite recent in evolutionary terms. We wear analytical prose like a hairshirt. Our bodies and minds weren’t designed for analytical reductiveness; we were made for participation.

Owen Barfield was an expert on the poetry and history of the English language, and often made this same point. Just yesterday, I discovered a fascinating blog, which has a great post about Owen Barfield’s “Unancestral Voices”:

Now, I just finished reading the first three chapters of Barfield’s Unancestral Voice , and my brain is on fire. In this short expanse of prose, Barfield turns Darwin on his head in a reverse manner to the way that Marx supposedly turned Hegel on his head. There was no inchoate, unreasoning, unKnowing process that willy-nilly resulted in man’s rational and linguistic capacities. His single phrase “The interior is anterior” liberated me to see what he had been saying all along. The “unfree wisdom” was what nature had all along. All of it, Plato, Aristotle, Jefferson, Einstein, was there, somewhere, encoded into the warp and woof of Creation, but it wasn’t free. It wasn’t yet self aware. And it wasn’t the result of material processes. And at the center of it was the Incarnation.