All entries for February 2011

February 19, 2011

Analyzing the Great Man

Biography is a central tool in my research. In order to show that William Shakespeare had an influence on Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud’s work, I must first understand Marx and Freud’s engagement with the plays. The bulk of my work consists of close readings and intertextual analysis, but those techniques need a biographical context for clarification. How were Marx and Freud introduced to Shakespeare’s plays? Where did they read them or see them? In what language did they access them? What did they think of them? These are crucial questions whose answers form a foundation for my intertextual work. Inevitably, biographical research leads to a doorway which, if the researcher chooses to pass through, enrols him in the project of analyzing the Great Man.

Theoretical distinctions and skirmishes are constructed by the researcher’s decision at the threshold. New Criticism refused to enter into the biographical project. According to these critics, the literature spoke for itself. New Historicists, on the other hand, chided anyone who chose not to cross that threshold. Without biography, they hold, one could not grasp the situational intentions of the writer in his socio-historical context. For them, the literature held only half the story in its lines. The other half could be discovered from biography and history. Today, a synthesis of these two positions guides most literary critics. Close readings sit comfortably with contextual analysis in most contemporary criticism.

However, there is another character who speaks on this issue – the target of the biographical analysis, the writer himself. Since I am a humanistic therapist as well as a literary critic, I must respect that person’s position. In my therapy practice, I can only analyze someone if he allows me to. I can only work with what he tells me, or displays to me in some fashion – verbally, emotionally, or physically. Similarly, literary criticisms’ analytic targets, the great men of literature and philosophy differ in their openness to being analyzed. By regarding the men I research as I do my therapy clients, I discover an effective measure for knowing if I should cross the threshold into biographical analysis. If the writer has left no autobiography, no letters, no discussion of why he wrote, how he wrote or who he wrote for, then he doesn’t want to be analyzed. And I must respect that or end up in conjecture that is unanchored to any reality. If the writer does write transparently and publicly about himself, then he has invited me into his biography and I will take the opportunity to analyze him.

William Shakespeare wrote nothing about himself. He left no autobiographical writings, no letters, and very few hints about his life. The hints he did inadvertently leave are mostly about his business dealings, not about his writing life. Shakespeare did not, unlike his contemporary Ben Johnson, even leave a collection of his writings. The collection had to be painstakingly pieced together from many sources by people working after Shakespeare died. I do not, therefore, have Shakespeare as a client. He eschews my therapy chair. I can analyze his characters and the tantalizing narrator of his sonnets, but, alas, not the writer himself.

Karl Marx also did not write anything autobiographical. He rarely spoke about himself in his writings. When he did write about something in which he was involved, it was about his organizations – newspapers, journals, and worker’s groups. Through writings such as Herr Vogt and The Communist Manifesto, we can learn what he thought about the work of the organizations in which he participated, but not about himself as a writer or man. Marx did write copious amounts of letters. He wrote to his family, friends, colleagues and enemies. While Marx did not intend for us to read his letters, we are justified in taking some biographical facts from them by his historical importance. We will never know all the facts that we would like to know about Marx because some of his letters were destroyed by his daughter in an effort to keep a potentially distasteful picture of his character hidden from the public.

Marx’s letters about his attempts to write his economics provide me with a useful tool for analysis of his process. Read side-by-side with the drafts of his economics, I can see how he struggled to understand the history of the systems of production and distribution and how he worked through the writings of political economists to formulate a critique of their work. David McLellan’s highly useful biography, Karl Marx: His Life and Thought, gives the reader an account of Marx’s intellectual odyssey through a synthesis of information from Marx’s writings, letters, and the letters of others who wrote to or about Marx.

In my research, I used McLellan’s biography alongside a close reading and timeline of all of Marx’s quotes from and allusions to Shakespeare’s plays. A picture emerged about which plays Marx was reading, when he read them and how he used them. For example, it is clear that Marx had The Merchant of Venice and King Lear on his mind in the early 1840s. During these years, he used them more than any other Shakespearean play, quoting from or referring to them nine times. Questions of moral justice weighed heavily on Marx’s mind in those days when he wrote against the injustices he saw in Europe. It is significant to see that The Merchant of Venice shows up prominently again in Marx’s most mature work, Capital Vol. 1. He uses quotes from the play to emphasize the suffering of humans under the yoke of capitalism. Marx, in his late writings, clearly had not abandoned his commitment to the oppressed subject as some writers claim that he had. Next, the play that faithfully accompanied Marx through his years of wrangling with the economics was Timon of Athens. Marx quoted from it first in his 1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts. He used lines from that play in all of the subsequent drafts of his economic theory and they hold a prominent spot in Marx’s chapter about money in Capital Vol. 1. Throughout his economics, we can see Marx flinging handfuls of curses lifted from world literature at the de-humanizing system – capitalism. Marx quotes from the Bible, Sophocles, Virgil, Goethe, Shakespeare and a handful of minor poets who wrote against the effects of money on their world.

My most cooperative client is Sigmund Freud. We not only have access to his collected works and his letters (although he did try to suppress the letters to Wilhelm Fliess), but Freud is, in his theoretical writings, transparent about many aspects of his self. In the Interpretation of Dreams Freud opens the door to his unconscious by publishing and analyzing his own dreams. He writes autobiographically about himself and is, on many occasions, his first analysand. I take this as an agreement between him and me to place him in my client chair.

The third chapter of my research tests the influence of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice on Freud’s writings about the death instinct. I use Freud’s essay, Das Motiv der Kästchenwahl, along with his autobiographical revelations in The Interpretation of Dreams to demonstrate Shakespeare’s influence. It is widely believed that Freud’s theory of the death instinct had been first developed and named in his 1920 book, Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Writers are tempted to place this book in its post-WWI historical context and posit that a certain amount of disillusionment with humanity drove Freud to construct an explanatory death instinct. However, the discovery of Freud’s letters to Fliess and his Project for a Scientific Psychology, both written in the 1890s, has become evidence for some writers to posit that Freud constructed the theoretical foundations for the death instinct early in his career. When his 1913 essay about Bassanio’s casket choice in The Merchant of Venice, Das Motiv der Kästchenwahl, is brought into the discussion, it forms a bridge between the foundational death instinct theory in the 1895 Project and the 1920 Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Freud holds that Bassanio’s choice of the lead casket is his reaction formation against his unconscious death instinct wishes. When Freud’s writings are set into a biographical context, it becomes clear that the death instinct has its roots deep in the history of Freud’s unconscious.

Through his self-analysis, both in letters and his theoretical writings, Freud has made it possible, and, I argue, given us permission, to analyze the origins of his theories in his biography. He first came into contact with death when his brother was born. In a letter to Fliess, Freud reports that he wished for his brother’s death, and that his brother died soon after. Freud was aware that he felt guilty about this all of his life. Then, when he was two and a half years old, his mother went to the hospital to have her next child and, at the same time, his nurse, with whom he was very close, was arrested for theft. He lost both of his mothers in one fell swoop and asked his brother where they were. The older brother told him that the nursemaid was eigenkastelt, boxed in, imprisoned. Little Sigismund then ran around the house opening all of the Kästen, cupboards, looking for his mothers. I suggest -- with all the gentleness of a therapist -- that the word Kästen figures into Freud’s thoughts about Bassanio’s casket choice. This word was firmly tied to the imagery of death in Freud’s unconscious.

It was, by Freud’s own admission, Shakespeare who helped him resolve his feelings about death. In 1872, when Freud was 6 years old, his mother told him that people come from dust and return to dust when they die. He did not believe her, so she rubbed her hands together vigorously and showed him the dirt and skin that had accumulated in her palm. In his 1899 Interpretation of Dreams, Freud writes this story and reveals that he finally understood what his mother meant when, at eight years old, he read Shakespeare’s Henry IV, part 1. In the play, Prince Hal tells Falstaff, after the cowardly knight feigned death on the battlefield, “Thou owest God a death”. Freud curiously misread the line as, “Thou owest nature a death”, and used it to make sense of his mother’s dust-to-dust lesson. While Freud consciously used Shakespeare’s plays to develop his theories, the plays also worked on his unconscious. As a researcher, I can make a link between the plays and Freud’s conscious and unconscious, because Freud himself has made that link transparent in his writings.


February 02, 2011

Killing the Great Man

After reading Karl Marx’s Capital Vol. 1 in the early 1980s, the veil was ripped from in front of my eyes and I saw many things clearly. The more times I read the book, the deeper my vision penetrated into the roots of modern society. Marxism, with its foundational philosophical methods, historical materialism and dialectical materialism, became the method that I used to analyse all the academic fields in which I studied – physiology, psychology, pedagogy and literary criticism. Marx’s theories of alienation and reification became the foundational theories for my practice in each of these fields – as a somatic therapist, a psychotherapist, a teacher and a literary critic. They are the through line that unites all of my work.


Throughout my academic life, I steadily worked my way through Marx’s collected writings and deepened my respect and admiration for the man. I clearly remember my feelings during my first visit to his gravesite in Highgate Cemetery. I stood in awe before the massive sculpture of his head on the tomb. I delighted in reading his Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach on his tombstone – ‘The philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways; the point however is to change it.’ Without noticing it, and against Marx’s tenets of historical materialism (which I understood well), I contributed to the Great Man Theory of History by placing Karl Marx, the man, at the centre of his theories.


This methodological mistake reached its (ridiculous) apex when I came to the conclusion that Shakespeare was Marxist. During my readings of Shakespeare’s plays, I found many examples of Marx’s notions of the problems with money and the commodification of life, of oppressive hegemonic relations, of the inversion of the object and the subject, of alienation and reification, and of the failure of mutual recognition. Obviously, I knew that the nineteenth century Marx could not have influenced the sixteenth century Shakespeare, but I still clung to the idea that I had found Marx in Shakespeare.


When I proposed an exploration of Shakespeare’s Marxism to my doctoral supervisor, Jonathan Bate, he went silent for a moment and then re-emerged suggesting that I look at how Marx is Shakespearean. I thought, to myself; ‘What?! How can Marx, the greatest thinker of all time, be Shakespearean?’ I quickly realized that I had seriously erred in my thinking about Marx. His work was not written in isolation. The greatness of his critique of our world was not thought up only by him. Marxism is not Marx; it is, at the time of his writings, one end product of thousands of years of thinking about the human condition. Marx is a man who had the vision and capacity to formulate strands from all those years of human thought into a radical theory and method. The reason why I saw so much Marx in Shakespeare is because I saw the same issues explored in similar ways both in Marx and in Shakespeare. When I stepped out of the Great Man method of thinking, I could clearly see that the issues should be central, not the men. I needed to kill the last vestiges of the Great Man in my mind in order to see deeper into Marx’s work in its social context.


Shakespeare the Great Man has also received many fatal blows recently. Theatrical studies have revealed that Shakespeare’s plays were written within the context of the complex environment of early modern culture production that was influenced by historical precedent and paradigms, contemporary economic and political conditions, and the ideological framework of their audience. Apocrypha studies have torn down the fortifications surrounding Shakespeare’s canon. We now accept that Shakespeare wrote more than he is said to have written and less than he is given credit for. Shakespeare’s hand can be found in parts of plays attributed to other playwrights and other playwright’s writings can be found in many of the plays for which Shakespeare is given sole credit. Shakespeare was certainly one of the best writers of his time, if not of all time, but he wrote in the flow of the river of human consciousness. His mind and its sensitivities are a product of history. Similarly, Marx was also a powerful and effective writer, but he too was a product of history. One significant historical influence that Marx found in world literature was Shakespeare’s plays. He allowed his consciousness to be infused by the ideas, imagery, and plots of the plays. Indeed, there is much that is Shakespearean in Marx.


Yet who influenced Shakespeare? When he waded in the river of human thought and consciousness he fished out ideas from his contemporary playwrights, from Montaigne and Machiavelli, from the Classical poets and prose writers including Ovid and Homer, Plutarch and Aristotle. By shifting my focus from the works of great men to the history of human thinking and culture, I have been able to clearly see the influence of Shakespeare on Marx, or better put, the influence of the ideas with which Shakespeare worked on the ideas with which Marx worked.


This has revealed to me an interesting new view about hope for social change. It is easy to despair about the fact that few people today seem to be taking Marx seriously, and that we will continue to suffer under the injustice and inefficiency of a clearly outdated system – capitalism. However, my research has shown me that the very issues about which Marx writes were dramatized in Shakespeare’s plays, in Montaigne’s essays, in Virgil’s poetry and in Sophocles’ plays. Concerns about the role of money in our life have been voiced for more than two thousand years. Concerns about the fate of humans in a world ruled by domination are just as old. The question of what it means to be human and how humans lose that status is possibly the most explored question in world literature. These concerns, which lay at the root of Marx’s writings, are universal and long-standing, and, therefore, lay at the roots of the human condition. A solution can be found if we follow our great writers into those roots.


February 2011

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