Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Bound and determined: Hamlet, Prospero, and the puzzled will (Part Six)



 Whatever we most desire may be no more than what's destined to reveal us to ourselves



The Argument: “Desiring this man’s [Prospero’s] art and that man’s [Hamlet’s] scope” [Sonnet 29], the poet-playwright Shakespeare (known familiarly as “Will” and never indifferent to punning) doubts that either of his famous creatures suffices to establish the independence of human action.



Browbeating his environment, which comprises the spirits and half-human monster he controls, its tempest-tossed newcomers, and his daughter, Prospero the wizard indulged his will by supernatural means. Hamlet never enjoyed that advantage when it came to testing his will and distinguishing it from the enormity of what he could not overmaster.

T.S. Eliot: His Prufrock has unwitting bond with Hamlet.
The Prince is a new kind of tragic hero, for he is brought down by no idiosyncratic flaw, but a universal one. That has been acknowledged throughout the culture in allusions usually linked to the flaw of indecisiveness. T. S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock roundly declares: “No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be.”  But that sad sack’s loveless love song shares in more of the prince’s dilemma than he can bear to acknowledge. The Dane has larger problems to wrestle with and more “scope” to apply to them. Yet both Prufrock and Hamlet realize that the greatest human resources are unavailing against fate. In that, they are brothers.

Prospero’s time is a storyteller’s time, without the distancing, formulaic opening of “Once upon a time.” It is based on the now; when he unfolds the long background to their present situation to Miranda, he speaks sharply to her repeatedly, commanding her attention. There’s no sign she is less than fascinated, however. He knows that she is innocently in the present, and must worry that his long account of past events will seem dull or unintelligible to her.

His sense of time is an Augustinian "now." In the “Confessions,” St. Augustine posits (as paraphrased by Bertrand Russell) that all time has to be perceived as present: “The present of things past is memory, the present of things present is sight; and the present of things future is expectation.” Prospero is overwhelmed by what he remembers, by what he now sees when he works magic, and by what he expects as an outcome. “The Tempest” is generous visually, but stingy with time.

Franz Kafka: Dapper before the camera, stumped before the Law.
Prospero reflects consistent awareness that this all-embracing present has been willed and set in place through his special powers, then carried out (with music and special effects) by his imaginative factotum, Ariel, and his minions. Looking on either side of that visible present makes him either crabby or fatalistic. Jesus' lily without spell-gilded raiment holds no interest for him.

The danger of a highly focused will is the shriveling of human capacity and a studied blindness to fate. Franz Kafka’s mighty story “Before the Law” gives us a supplicant stopped at an outer gate, with the Law he yearns to approach no better than a distant promise. This is not the Law that kept Kafka’s ancestors together through covenant, nor the one Jesus proclaimed he had come to fulfill, but rather something like its opposite.

The gatekeeper persuades the traveler to be patient, but will not let him enter. The man devotes his whole life to waiting, becoming enfeebled and in effect reduced to nothing other than the will to enter and proceed toward the Law. Finally he inquires why no one else has asked to be admitted.

Here’s where every reader shudders to imagine his or her destiny when he or she is blocked from whatever is most desired. For this is where the gatekeeper leans over and shouts at the nearly deaf, nearly dead man: “No one else could ever be admitted here, since this gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it.”

Richard Burton as Hamlet: The sword as cross cannot protect against what the Ghost represents.
The Law, glorious in its unreachable distance, may well be what lies past the “undiscover’d country, from whose bourn no traveler returns.” It’s whatever may be situated beyond this foreordained life that our wills compel us to ignore. In his most famous soliloquy, Hamlet identifies that prospect as something that “puzzles the will.”

One of Shakespeare’s modern editors notes that “puzzles” means “paralyzes.” Paralysis renders action null. That reality is the still, unplumbed water in which Prospero promises to “drown my book.”  And the dubious strength of the will, its likely ineffectuality, is what Hamlet sets aside in favor of plain revelation of himself, to himself, when he says at last, “The readiness is all” and “The rest is silence.”

The loyal Horatio then offers the play's final fragmentary prayer, pious but devoid of reference to any deity: "Good night, sweet prince! And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."

Where is Hamlet's rest? Wherever has already been determined for him from the start. I'm not competent to assert that the latest science forces all of us to become materialists. Instinctively, we see in other people immaterial entities we call personality, consciousness, even soul. To me, being certain that other people also have the intangible quality we call free will is much more difficult.

Yet the convention of believing they possess and exercise free will seems unavoidable, because we insist on that capability for ourselves. Similarly, we can recognize conditioning, habit and temperament as shaping thought and behavior, and some of us also see heaven's hand as a major influence. But we're reluctant to maximize these causes to the end-point of asserting that they and their effects are all foreordained, whether we identify the source as God, physics or fortune (which Prospero personifies as "my dear lady," Hamlet as a strumpet).

The elfin Ralph Waldo Emerson warns us in “Self-Reliance” that prayers are a disease of the will; creeds, of the intellect.  An optimistic, even jovially creedless, view of the will sustains him throughout this seminal essay. In a 1919 review of "The Cambridge History of American Literature,"  Eliot used Nathaniel Hawthorne as a stick to beat Emerson with, finding "the permanence of art" in the fiction writer, against which Emerson's essays are “already an encumbrance.”

The troubled modernist, headed toward a doctrinaire maturity, praised Hawthorne for "the firmness, the true coldness, the hard coldness of the genuine artist" — a frigidity not normally considered conducive to art, and nowhere near the characteristic warmth of either Shakespeare or Emerson, genuine artists in the estimation of many.

Emerson steers a confident course between the vagaries of will and the certainties of fate by urging the power of a strong self, incumbent upon each of us to develop. He says we have a duty to fear conditioning and conformity more than the laws of nature. Hamlet and Prospero are well past having to quell such fears. As substantial as they are, however, neither character commands a self strong enough to overcome the apprehension that free will may not exist.

Unintimidated by inexorable fate, Emerson says: “I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim,” The Sage of Concord continues, extending his time-traveling advice to this blogger — advice with which I end, grateful to anyone who’s read this far: “I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation.”

No, indeed. But I submit that the hypothetical truth of determinism was something the genius Shakespeare pondered nervously and may have recoiled from, but couldn’t quite evade, in two of his most peculiar great plays. To personify its enduring fascination so memorably through art was sufficient.

As for my decision to conclude this exploration here.... it was bound to happen.