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:

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.

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.

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.

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.

‘His garment!’ Now the devil–

‘His garment!’

You have abused me:
‘His meanest garment!’

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:

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:

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:

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:

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.

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:

Let me end the story:
I slew him there.

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

I have spoke it, and I did it.

He was a prince.

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.

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.


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.

Heisman’s Nihilist Experiment

During Yom Kippur this year, Mitchell Heisman dressed in white, climbed the steps of Harvard Memorial Church, and killed himself as dozens of horrified spectators watched. His death drew attention to the 1900-page “Philosophy Book” he self-published. For a few days, until a spate of gay suicides wiped Heisman from the public consciousness, the early reviews of his book seemed positive. IvyGate said:

The document sketches Heisman’s dense, heavily-cited social, political, and ethical philosophy, and promotes his book, heretofore unpublished. Heisman worked in several bookstores throughout the area, and consulted with Harvard professors in the process of writing the document.

Most arresting of all: the note — tome, really — is probing, deeply researched, and often humorous. Heisman personality and erudition shine through every page, as he traces the philosophical steps that have led him to suicide: not really desperation or depression, but rather, intellectual curiosity, and a desire to test the limits of the unknown. After a quick read, comparisons to Albert Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus” abound. All the more sad that such a deeply intelligent young man would choose to cut his scholarly output off at one, interesting book.

Commenters lauded the young man’s “brilliance”, and a few even speculated that the work would be studied in serious university courses for decades to come. Since I’m interested in many of the topics he discusses, I approached it with great interest soon after he died. It took me 3 days to finish the book.

Heisman’s primary goal in writing the book is to explain why suicide is the “ultimate experiment in nihilism”. Sadly, if Heisman had allowed anyone to peer-review his book before his experiment, he would still be alive today. His treatise would earn a solid failing grade in any philosophy, economics, history, or religion course I know.

In every field of study he employs, he cherry-picks citations that support his crackpot theories and seems to be ignorant of anything taught beyond undergraduate level. It’s a total train wreck. I’ve talked with many schizophrenics, and his obsessive proof-texting and conspiracy theorizing is sadly typical of mental disease.

His central argument is that nihilism is the only logical conclusion of materialistic naturalism. This is a slur normally leveled by Christians against atheists, so it’s ironic that this specious argument becomes the center piece of Heisman’s atheistic excuse to kill himself. Of course, some Christians still try to equate atheistic naturalism with nihilism, but it hasn’t been a strong argument for decades. Out of curiosity, I looked around, and the best current argument equating naturalism with nihilism seems to be “Ethical Naturalism Defeated” by Mark Linville. Like Heisman, Linville assumes that altruism could only arise as a fitness function, and doesn’t consider sexual selection. This oversimplified view of Darwinism completely undermines his argument.

It’s a terrible shame that someone would kill himself over a basic misunderstanding of evolutionary biology. If you’re going to pretend to believe in the theory, you ought to do it right. When lives are at stake (especially your own), one ought to have absolutely unimpeachable reasoning.

Several reviewers held up Heisman as a great example of postmodernist deconstructionism. But they clearly did not read his book. He might still be alive if he had even a passing familiarity with postmodernism. The only times he mentions postmodernism are when he equates it with sollipsism, and when he uses it in the same sentence as the word “deconstruction”. His multiple uses of the word “deconstruction” only prove that he hasn’t the slightest clue what that word means, which is tragic. If only he had thought to deconstruct concepts like “Jew”, “Anglo-Saxon”, and “Christian”. It’s especially ironic that he’s (mis)-using “deconstruction” in the context of “deposing the Mosaic order” and Jewish identity. It’s as if he read Sloterdijk’s “Derrida, An Egyptian” and got completely confused. Again, postmodernism is a wretched mess, but if you’re planning to use “deconstruction” in life-or-death decisions, you ought to at least do it properly.

Beneath all of the deplorable scholarship and sophistry, one discovers a young man who never recovered from the death of his father. Starting around page 1850, Heisman becomes abruptly autobiographical:

When my father died when I was twelve, I dealt with his death by interpreting him as a purely material phenomenon. In other words, I viewed my father as a material thing and his death as a material process. Well before my father died, I had interpreted my own emotions as material processes and my reaction to my father’s death was treated no differently.

The death of my father marked the beginning, or perhaps the acceleration, of a kind of moral collapse, because the total, materialization of the world from matter to humans to literal subjective experience went hand in hand with a nihilistic inability to believe in the worth of any goal. At one point when I was nineteen, after another descent into a psychological downward spiral, I had enough, and finally launched myself into a “program” of radical self transformation.

Ultimately, Heisman seems like a young man who was in a tremendous amount of emotional pain and wanted to die, but who felt compelled to protect those he loved by making his suicide appear rational, calculated, and even heroic.

The Poetry of King James

I was completely off the grid in the wilderness last week, so I took the opportunity to read through “Figures of Speech: 60 Ways To Turn A Phrase” (as well as halfway through “Perception“). I bought the book based on this review by Dandelionsmith, HT: Unk.

In “Figures of Speech“, Quinn introduces 60 different figures of speech, citing several examples of each. This little book is a virtual bestiary of many of my favorite lines from Yeats, Shakespeare, the Bible, and other sources. Over the years, I’ve read and memorized extensively, and I know what I like, but I’ve never in my life taken a college-level literature course. It was exciting to see that all of these different techniques have names and can be correlated across sources. Since reading this book, my mind has been flooded with examples Quinn didn’t cite, explaining so many lines of poetry I found beautiful but couldn’t say why. For example, the parallels are obvious between Blake and Shakespeare here:

And what shoulder and what art
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?


Tell me where is fancy bred?
Or in the heart or in the head

But before reading this book, I never would have thought to articulate the parallel. Of course, poetry is about much more than figures of speech, but this was an enjoyable and illuminating book.

While reading the book, I found myself re-evaluating my attitudes about the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible. As a child, most of the verses I memorized were KJV, but I’ve since switched to New International Version (NIV), and memorized several Psalms in NIV. Quinn cites beautiful passages from KJV, many of which I remember from childhood. But when I looked them up in NIV I was surprised to find that many had lost the very figures of speech which made them beautiful. The ugly starts right at the beginning of the Bible. Compare KJV:

the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

with NIV:

the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

How many times have I read my NIV and not noticed this? Many other examples of figures of speech present in KJV are lost in NIV, and upon further reflection, it makes sense. KJV attempts to be more literal, word-for-word, while NIV attempts to express the semantic meaning in natural English. To be sure, the editors of NIV were able to preserve a fraction of the figures of speech present in the Hebrew and Greek, but it appears that many were lost.

C. S. Lewis once speculated that Ecclesiastes might not be inspired, and I’ve always intended to write an essay defending Ecclesiastes. This post from Unk both defends Ecclesiastes and underscores the beauty of the figures of speech in KJV. Unk quotes Ecclesiastes 12:1-7 (KJV, NIV) and says:

It is one of the most beautiful passages in all of Scripture, in terms of the poetic quality of the language, at least in the King James Version—about that season of life.

Who can disagree? The NIV version is beautiful, but the fidelity of KJV more beautiful still. Yeats’ poem “When You are Old” is one of my favorite depictions of this season, but is a pale shadow of Ecclesiastes 12 in KJV, and apes the same figures of speech. Shall we assume that Yeats was not speaking of Ecclesiastes 12, and the creator who is Love, who moved upon the face of the waters?

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead,
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Derrida, An Egyptian

I just finished reading Peter Sloterdjik’s tribute to Derrida, titled “Derrida, An Egyptian”. Postmodern deconstructionists are generally clowns, but the book was fantastic. Sloterdjik does a beautiful job. Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:

A sharp-witted hetero-Egyptian brought into Egypt through a second distortion could indeed have the ability to understand the homo-Egyptians better than they understood themselves. This hermeneutical superiority would be a gift bestowed by his specific marginality — and would in fact transpire to be the key to Joseph’s success in Egypt.

‘Egyptian’ is the term for all constructs that can be subject to deconstruction — except for the pyramid, that most Egyptian of edifices. It stands in its place, unshakable for all time, because its form is nothing other than the undeconstructible remainder of a construction that, following the plan of its architect, is built to look as it would after its own collapse.

Hehe, honesty is great:

Whoever chooses exposes himself to the risk of identification, which is precisely what Derrida was always most concerned to avoid.

Speaking of the Exodus:

All of a sudden, the divine changes hands: is passed from the architects to the archivists. From a monument, it becomes a document.

So close to Barfield, yet so far away:

Every sign, according to Hegel, is ‘the pyramid into which a foreign soul has been conveyed … and is preserved’

This is the dream of reductionism:

If he is to bring his theory of the spirit to its goal, he cannot waste any time with the weight of the pyramids or the enigmatic nature of the hieroglyphs; both must be overcome, until the spirit can clothe itself in a shell of language whose lightness and translucence allow it to forget that it needs any external addition.

I speak Chinese, and he’s wrong about this next quote (the ugly old Saphir-Whorf fallacy). But it’s pretty anyhow:

In this sense, the Egyptians remain eternal prisoners of externality to Hegel, like the Chinese, whose language and writing form one giant system of barriers and disturbances that render impossible the fulfilled moment in which the spirit, distancelessly attendant on itself, hears itself speak.

This final one brings to mind Scruton’s “Beauty”:

The pyramid’s chamber is thus likewise an object that can be sent on a journey — it especially likes to land in those areas of the modern world in which people are obsessed with the notion that artistic and cultural objects should be conserved at any cost. …where selected objects are mortified, defunctionalized, removed from all profane uses, and offered up for reverent viewing.