Monday, November 29, 2010

How Shakespeare changes us

I have a specific intuition about Shakespeare: that the very shapes of Shakespeare's lines and sentences somehow have a dramatic effect at deep levels in my mind. For example, Macbeth at the end of his tether:

And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have, but in their stead
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath
Which the poor heart would fain deny and dare not.

I'll say no more than this: it simply would not be the same, would it, if Shakespeare had written it out more straightforwardly: I must not look to have the honour, love, obedience, troops of friends which should accompany old age. Nor would it be the same if he had not suddenly coined that disgusted phrase "mouth-honour" (now a cliche as "lip-service").

Shakespeare will often use one part of speech - a noun or an adjective, say - to serve as another, often a verb, shifting its grammatical nature with minimal alteration to its shape. Thus in "Lear" for example, Edgar comparing himself to the king: "He childed as I fathered" (nouns shifted to verbs); in "Troilus and Cressida," "Kingdomed Achilles in commotion rages" (noun converted to adjective); "Othello," "To lip a wanton in a secure couch/And to suppose her chaste!"' (noun "lip" to verb; adjective "wanton" to noun).

The effect is often electric I think, like a lightning-flash in the mind: for this is an economically compressed form of speech, as from an age when the language was at its most dynamically fluid and formatively mobile; an age in which a word could move quickly from one sense to another, in keeping with Shakespeare's lightning-fast capacity for forging metaphor. It was a small example of sudden change of shape, of concomitant effect upon the brain.

In other words, while the Shakespearian functional shift is semantically integrated with ease, it triggers a syntactic re-evaluation process likely to raise attention and give more weight to the sentence as a whole.

Shakespeare is stretching us; he is opening up the possibility of further peaks, new potential pathways or developments. Our findings show how Shakespeare created dramatic effects by implicitly taking advantage of the relative independence, at the neural level, of semantics and syntax in sentence comprehension. It is as though he is a pianist using one hand to keep the background melody going, whilst simultaneously the other pushes towards ever more complex variations and syncopations.

Shakespeare's syntax, its shifts and movements, can lock into the existing pathways of the brain and actually move and change them - away from old and aging mental habits and easy long-established sequences. It could be that Shakespeare's use of language gets so far into our brains that he shifts and creates new pathways, not unlike the establishment of new biological networks using novel combinations of existing elements (genes/proteins in biology: units of phonology, semantics, syntax, and morphology in language). Then indeed we might be able to see something of the ways literature can cause affect or create change, without resorting to being assertively gushy.

Shakespeare's art is no more and no less than the supreme example of a mobile, creative and adaptive human capacity, in deep relation between brain and language. It makes new combinations, creates new networks, with changed circuitry and added levels, layers and overlaps. And all the time it works like the cry of "action" on a film-set, by sudden peaks of activity and excitement dramatically breaking through into consciousness. It makes for what William James said of mind in his "Principles of Psychology," "a theatre of simultaneous possibilities." This could be a new beginning to thinking about reading and mental changes.

- Philip Davis

Saturday, November 27, 2010

We still crave authenticity (even in reality tv)

The average show takes members of the public and sends them on a journey. We love to follow that because it's a cracking story which engages our emotion. It's not unlike a soap opera, except that these are real people and you get to vote them out one by one. That simple premise dominates everything from Britain's Got Talent to Big Brother and The Apprentice. What it creates is an extraordinarily powerful story arc where we get involved in the characters. That's why we watch it.

Reality television is a completely constructed premise. None of the people would be in it if we were just showing their normal lives. But what it does do is take human flesh and blood and challenges it in situations that bring out a person's true personality. So what flows from this constructed premise is extremely real. That's why shows work, because the public is after authenticity… They want to support people with talent and for them to win, but they punish pretension and two-facedness. - Peter Bazalgette

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Spiritual Goods

Economics and politics are intrinsically conflictual. Much of life is a zero-sum competition for scarce goods in which some win, some lose. But spiritual goods - love, trust, friendship, the pursuit of knowledge - are not zero-sum. The more we share, the more we have. That I win does not mean that you lose, and vice versa. So my self-respect never needs to be purchased at the cost of yours. I can respect you without denigrating myself. I can make space for you without denying myself. So our deepest psychological and spiritual goods need never be bought at the cost of others. That knowledge enough to remove many, even most, of the conflicts by which people cause one another pain. - Jonathan Sachs

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Kierkegaardian win-lose & lose-win

“A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity.” Despair occurs when there is an imbalance in this synthesis. From there Kierkegaard goes on to present a veritable portrait gallery of the forms that despair can take. Too much of the expansive factor, of infinitude, and you have the dreamer who cannot make anything concrete. Too much of the limiting element, and you have the narrow minded individual who cannot imagine anything more serious in life than bottom lines and spread sheets.

Though it will make the Bill Mahers of the world wince, despair according to Kierkegaard is a lack of awareness of being a self or spirit. A Freud with religious categories up his sleeves, the lyrical philosopher emphasized that the self is a slice of eternity. While depression involves heavy burdensome feelings, despair is not correlated with any particular set of emotions but is instead marked by a desire to get rid of the self, or put another way, by an unwillingness to become who you fundamentally are. This unwillingness often takes the form of flat out wanting to be someone else. Kierkegaard writes:

An individual in despair despairs over something. So it seems for a moment, but only for a moment; in the same moment the true despair or despair in its true form shows itself. In despairing over something, he really despaired over himself, and now he wants to be rid of himself. For example, when the ambitious man whose slogan is “Either Caesar or nothing” does not get to be Caesar, he despairs over it … precisely because he did not get to be Caesar, he cannot bear to be himself.

In America, there is endless talk of the importance of having a dream — that is, a dreamed-up self that you will to become: a millionaire, a surgeon, or maybe the next Dylan or George Clooney. But master of suspicion that Kierkegaard was, he goes on to note that while the man who has failed to become Caesar would have been in seventh heaven if he had realized his dream, that state would have been just as despairing in another way — because in that giddy self-satisfied condition, he would never have come to grasp his true self.

- Gordon Marino

Monday, November 22, 2010

The aim is to recreate fluency

Good writing, like good conversation or interpretation in analysis, seems to free something in us. It is as though mobility has sprung from paralysis; but only once we start moving do we realize quite how stuck in we had been. The picture in our minds, in our language, is usually of blockage and release. We, or something in us, is felt to be trapped or constrained. Whether it is the repressed instincts proliferating in the dark, buried alive, or the poetry flowing through...the aim is to recreate fluency. - Adam Phillips

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Charlie Parker: humiliation as motivation

As a teenager, Charlie Parker embarrassed himself by sitting in at Kansas City jam sessions before he had fully mastered the alto saxophone, thereby acquiring a citywide reputation for incompetence. In 1937 the humiliation overwhelmed him, and he took a summer job at a Missouri resort and began practicing in earnest for the first time in his life. Eight years later, he had metamorphosed into the glittering virtuoso who teamed up with Dizzy Gillespie to record "Ko-Ko," "Groovin' High" and "Salt Peanuts," thereby writing himself into the history of jazz. - Terry Teachout

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Literature: varieties of emotional response

Literary works offer their readers a range of experiences that philosophical prose cannot provide. Some of these experiences are varieties of emotional response. Some are experiences of dislocation and a loss of meaning. Some are of losing a sense of meaning and then finding it again. Some are of not being able to figure out who or what a certain person is. And some just follow the trajectory of a human relationship. So literature portrays and dissects a wide range of human experiences. - Martha Nussbaum

Thursday, November 11, 2010

When inspiration becomes creation

Although our cultural stereotype is that great ideas suddenly appear in the minds of creative people without effort, the creative process, in Rothenberg's view, actually results from "direct, intense, and intentional effort on the creator's part." In the process of creativity, people are constantly looking for new ideas, approaches, and solutions. Rothenberg found that inspiration only becomes creation after an enormous amount of work and preparation, and the artist or scientist must be motivated specifically to create. - Richard Berlin, MD

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The need for visceral literature

I spoke of literary culture shutting down. The standard explanations for this are the distractions of the Internet, poor rudimentary education, the vanquishing of seriousness in university literature departments owing to the intellectually shallow enticements of modish subjects, and the allure of the pervasive entertainments of popular culture. Although none of these things help, literary culture is, I believe, shutting down chiefly because literature itself has become unimportant: what is being created in contemporary novels, poems and plays no longer speaks to the heart or mind. - Joseph Epstein

"If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?" This visceral, concrete, and highly personal definition of poetry is the most fitting way to view Dickinson's own work. Whether a poem is true "poetry" does not depend for Dickinson on its use of meter, rhyme, stanzas, or line length, but on the almost physical sensation created in the reader by the poem's words, the arctic chill in the marrow of the bones or the stunning blow to the mind that the reader experiences in the act of reading. - Wendy Martin

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Keys to Endurance & Meaning

Find someone who listens, who cares about you, who takes you seriously and you can live through anything. Find someone to help, who needs you, who’s grateful for your being there and life will mean something.
- Harold Kushner

Monday, November 8, 2010

Free-associating an internal democracy

That's what a symptom is; it's a repetition, an unconsciously motivated self-prediction (and by the same token, the 'patient' in psychoanalysis is cured when his past is no longer of particular interest to him). At best we flirt with our own unpredictability through our symptoms; at worst we are over-contained by them. Inhibition stages this as a drama. It is not always, or only, the inability to do something; it is also a cover-story, a protection against, not quite knowing what it is one wants to do. And what one might turn into, what one might feel, in the doing. The inhibited person, that is to say, has the most acute sense of the experimental nature of our acts. Of how doing something, doing anything, consigns one to the future, to the irreversible. To a future of unknown feeling; to the shock of the unprecedented.

When Ferenczi said the patient is not cured by free-association, he is cured when he can free-associate, he was acknowledging the very real difficulty everyone finds in sustaining and making known an internal democracy. People literally shut themselves up in their speaking out; speech is riddled with no-go areas; internal and external exchange, as fantasy and as practicality, is fraught with resistance. Psychoanalysis reveals just how ambivalent we are, to put it mildly, about freer forms of association (from a psychoanalytic point of view there is no such thing as a free enterprise.). And this must surely be where the analyst comes in. If the so-called patient is deemed to be suffering from one form or another of association-anxiety, presumably the analyst has something up his sleeve, so to speak, for precisely this predicament. - Adam Phillips, on psychoanalysis‏

Friday, November 5, 2010

Frank Kermode on S/Othello

We need not suppose that Shakespeare was contemptuous; only that, as his language suggests, Othello was human, the victim of long habit, and wanting, as he ended his life, to enter a plea for merciful interpretation. That he did not get it in the play, and has not always had it subsequently, merely shows how variable interpretation must be when it has to work on language as complex as that of Othello. - Frank Kermode

Thursday, November 4, 2010

T.S. Eliot on Shakespeare

Humility is the most difficult of all virtues to achieve; nothing dies harder than the desire to think well of oneself...I do not believe that any writer has exposed this bovarysme, the human will to see things as they are not, more clearly than Shakespeare. - T.S. Eliot

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Dostoevskian Freedom

Man may consciously, purposely desire what is injurious to himself; what is stupid, very stupid - simply in order to have the right to desire for himself even what is very stupid and not to be bound by an obligation to desire only what is sensible. - Dostoevsky

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

One primary characteristic of all creative people

Only one characteristic of personality and orientation to life and work is absolutely, across the board, present in all creative people: motivation. - Albert Rothenberg, MD, from 35 years of research as the principal investigator for the project, "Studies on the Creative Process."

Monday, November 1, 2010

Paradox of self and others

To begin with oneself, but not to end with oneself; to start from oneself, but not to aim at oneself; to comprehend oneself, but not to be preoccupied with oneself. - Martin Buber