A Dream and Some Reflections on Shakespeare (9/8/14)

Dream: Someone with whom I was acquainted was illicitly accessing and using a company elevator to enter a workplace where (presumably) he was working without authorization. As he entered the elevator I parted company with him and walked up the street. (Was I on Centenary Blvd. at Rutherford, across from the campus main entrance?) I noticed a white vehicle parked on the street—it could have been a station wagon or a regular sedan with a very large trunk. I’m not sure if I actually saw the young female owner of the vehicle before I opened the trunk—but I knew, while I was exploring its contents, she was the owner and that she would be returning anytime. There was no moment of stressful wrestling with my conscience before my curiosity prompted me to open the trunk (or rear hatch) and begin exploring the contents of the vehicle. My initial intention was not to steal anything, but simply to look, and if I found something I wanted, I guess I thought that I would stick around and make an offer—if I thought that far ahead. So, what was I finding? Books (boxes full of them), some vinyl record albums, and large Hershey chocolate bars. The books were, on the whole, the sort I like, or have read in the past: multiple copies of works by Nietzsche and Hermann Hesse among them. The albums—some of which were very old and apparently in excellent shape—were mostly classical music, from what I could tell. And then there were the large chocolate bars. The thought did cross my mind that I could take off with the two or three books I had selected (to awkwardly purchase from her when she returned?) and no one would be the wiser—but at this point I spotted the woman—the owner of the car and its contents—walking on the other side of the street. More importantly, she had seen me! In fact, she was watching me, warily and alarmedly, and I suspected at once that she had seen me rummaging through her stuff in her white vehicle with its trunk open. Goofily (and obviously ashamed of having opened her trunk and unauthorizedly explored its contents to see if there was anything there to my liking), I made a poorly received, unsuccessful effort to communicate to her (from across the street) the idea that I was an honest bloke and that I wanted to purchase a few of the things I had unlawfully ‘happened upon’ in her vehicle. I wanted to allay her distress and somehow quell her suspicions about me being a menacing person or a thief—but I could clearly see that she was keeping her distance. Then it occurred to me that she may have called the police and that she would let them deal with me. At that moment, just before I woke up—anxious from the dream—it dawned on me that even if I stuck around and tried to explain my actions, I was still culpable (for having opened the trunk and explored its contents) and that I would be at the mercy of the woman and/or the police. Sizing up the situation, my impulse was to flee—but at that moment I woke up.

I had a flurry of associated thoughts right after I woke up—while the dream was still fresh in my mind. The first thing I thought of was my recent ‘feud’ with J. S. (philosophy-spirituality versus modern empirical science personified). Next, I had the peculiar thought: No wonder William Shakespeare prudently kept a low profile (in his social milieu) and drew scant attention to his personality. I recalled the historically attested fact that those who did know and speak of him knew him as a pleasant and unassuming fellow. Then I thought of Demi P. pulling back from me with a look of shock and suspicion, thirty years ago, telling me, with more than a hint of horror in her voice that startled even me—‘You are a voyeur of people’s souls!’ Next, I recalled Nietzsche’s observation that Shakespeare must have had a wicked soul—and also remembering that when I read that remark for the first time I thought to myself, ‘Herr Nietzsche, it takes one to know one!’ Lastly, I thought about M. P.’s recent refusal (or conspicuous neglect) to call me back after she said she would, despite my repeated effort to re-connect with her after a long, but by no means hostile, silence—and that it’s always me who takes the initiative.

At that point, I began to reflect, generally, upon the pros and cons of ‘donning the polite and benign mask’ in my dealings with others. Those who manage, like D. P. (and perhaps M. P.) to see through that mask probably feel deeply violated and/or exploited—by my probing curiosity more than by my lust or by my cruelty—and tend, like the frightened car-owner whose trunk had been opened and its contents explored without her knowledge or consent, to ‘pull away’ in understandable dismay.

This dream seems, among other things, to suggest the deep question ‘Why do we wear masks and what are the dangers or the unpleasant liabilities (‘collateral damage’?) of unmasking? It seems fitting that my thoughts turned at once to Shakespeare after waking from this dream—since Shakespeare may have been the most sublimely accomplished master of masking and unmasking who ever put quill to parchment. The obvious employment of masks is seen, of course, in his use of fictional characters to convey profound truths about unmasked human nature—at all levels, under all typical and extreme circumstances, in all sorts of persons from all stations in life. Because these are fictions enacted upon the stage, we—the audience or readers of the plays—are provided with a conventional means of distancing ourselves to some extent from the dramatic events, so as not to be literally implicated in what is being enacted there. But at the same time, because the uncanny lifelikeness of the dramatic poet’s characters and situations is so compelling and so imaginatively absorbing, we can scarcely avoid being ‘taken in’ by these characters and deeply affected by their words and deeds. In the process, aspects of our own innermost, hidden human nature are shaken up and thereby unmasked for us. When Shakespeare has Hamlet say ‘the play’s the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king,’ he is just as rightfully referring to us, generally. In watching or reading these works, our complex responses to what we see occurring therein constitute the telltale signs and symptoms of our actual consciousness (or ‘conscience,’ in Elizabethan usage). The plays hold the mirror up to (our human) nature, allowing us—if we dare—to glimpse what ‘shadows and substance’ we are made of. And typically, of course, this happens without our knowing it. In other words, although we know something has happened—and that we have been moved and shaken—we usually are not aware of what has been finessed out of hiding, out of the shadows, by Shakespeare’s staggering array of unmasking mirrors. In the end, the plays ‘read’ us—rather than the reverse.   These extraordinary plays, like the sea, are bigger, deeper, livelier, subtler, far more powerful and penetrating than we are.

It dawned on me, some time ago, that the psyche is not in me—rather ‘I’ am in the psyche. It comprehends and contains ‘me,’ not the other way around. I now recognize that despite his forgivable philosophical-spiritual shortcomings and his occasional overstatement of the case, Harold Bloom was fundamentally correct about Shakespeare in his controversial book, The Invention of the Human: Shakespeare’s consciousness is not just different from ours. It includes and greatly transcends our far more limited, biased, ‘specialized,’ parochial, gender-identified, historically-culturally blinkered—and comparatively barbaric—consciousness.

This is what makes an extended acquaintance with Shakespeare’s mysteriously unnerving (but ultimately benign and potentially redemptive) wisdom so fatefully ‘consciousness-altering’ for thousands and thousands of readers and playgoers around the world who have come under the spell of these works. A deep and ever-renewed acquaintance with the plays can safely be relied upon to show us many things about our souls and our natures that we never suspected were there to begin with. The effect of this unmasking is extremely exciting and harrowing—incredibly consoling as well as damning—liberating and reducing—at one and the same time. In a word, the prolonged exposure to the poetically masked workings of this most sublime of imaginations is transformative. Like the fabled alchemist, the imagination of Shakespeare transforms common and even despised objects, persons, and conditions into something precious, subtly luminous, and even sacred.

But like Dante, the pilgrim—who also had to undergo a thorough purgation and trial by fire before he could rightfully enter the gates of Paradiso—the ‘initiate’ into the Shakespearean process of imaginative transfiguration must first serve an unspecified (but unavoidable) stretch of time in the infernal and purging regions of murky, molten, magma-passion, where his very corporeality is toasted and roasted until it slithers from the liberated spirit like the meat from barbecued spare-ribs.

We know that Shakespeare was possessed of a seemingly infinite—but uncannily disciplined, orderly, and accurate—imagination. Over the years, I have become convinced that the imagination that generates my dreams—or at least the ‘special’ ones—is often comparable in scope, depth, suggestiveness, and precision to Shakespeare’s. Of course, I claim no conscious responsibility or personal credit for this enormous and enormously intelligent imagination—no more than I can, in good conscience, take credit for the muse or daimon ‘who’ inspires the better instances of my philosophical speculation and essay-writing. As I am but an obedient ‘scribe’ when it comes to my ‘serious’ contemplative-speculative writing, so I am merely an (often clueless, but thoroughly appreciative) audience member in the theater of dreams delivered nightly during my ‘off hours.’

I usually have a ‘sense’ when a dream is particularly pregnant with significance, and the dream from which I awakened this morning was accompanied by such a presentiment of fullness and ominousness. Moreover, those personal associations I mentioned earlier—the links suggested (by the dream) to several ‘disturbed’ relations with friends, past and present—offer a kind of gateway into the dream, or so it would appear.

The idea of unmasking as a kind of violation of the sacred bond of friendship—a transgression of the unwritten laws of mutual protection, care, and affection—is certainly at work here. The illicit invasion of privacy and the selfish perusal and appropriation of what is uncovered (or dis-covered) is also evident in the dream. And when I was found out—in the dream—I hovered uneasily between an honest and courageous acknowledgement of what I had done and what my intentions were, on the one hand, and a self-protective, guilty retreat from the scene, on the other.

The idea here, it seems to me, is that if and when we go poking and prodding around in another person’s private zone, we are under a strict moral obligation to behave in a respectful, compassionate manner—like Shakespeare seems to have done, even with a number of his less prepossessing characters. The episode with the car full of books, records, and chocolate bars was framed, or introduced, by the unauthorized entry into a workplace by an acquaintance of mine. This sort of doubling technique (like parallel plots in a Shakespeare play) reinforces the main theme while creatively ‘complicating’ it.

Lately I have been writing essays that exhort the reader to moral-psychological courage—and in doing so I have rather baldly displayed my contemptuous disapproval of all forms of moral cowardice and dishonesty. My psyche, always smarter and more comprehensive in its vision than I am, has—like a good Shakespeare play—held an unforgiving but faithful mirror up to some deeply-rooted pillar of my ‘Faustian’ personality. I am not in the habit of regarding myself as Faustian, but the figure sprang to mind here because of his greedy, reckless quest for elusive and generally forbidden knowledge. It is precisely this daimonic drive to deepen and expand his knowledge—no matter how dangerous that knowledge might turn out to be—that makes Faust an interesting subject for Goethe’s genius to play with. Faust exchanges (or believes he exchanges) his very soul for access to this knowledge that is barred from ordinary mortals. The fact that he is willing to bargain away his soul for this knowledge makes it fairly clear that Faust is a man possessed by his curiosity—rather than one who has it under some kind of moral or ethical control. As I stood there, across the street from the woman whose privacy I had contemptuously ignored and whose goods I ransacked, I suddenly felt unequal to my deed, like Nietzsche’s ‘pale criminal.’ Instead of feeling royally ‘above it all’ and exempt from the laws and standards of respectful, civil behavior, I was suddenly acutely aware of the violation I had committed. And I felt scared and ashamed. Moreover, as I contemplated trying to explain myself to her—and to the police—in order to show that I had intended no harm and no theft—and that I was perfectly willing to pay a fair price for the two or three books I had taken from her car—I realized just how whacky and outrageous such an ‘explanation’ would sound to any ‘sane’ person. That’s when I felt the strong impulse to ‘split the scene,’ as they say.

Another prominent theme in my recent writing (to my scientist friend, J.), interestingly enough, has been science’s pernicious amorality—its congenital blindness when it comes to ethical, political, religious, and other ‘non-material’ and ‘non-quantifiable’ matters—which, as it turns out, comprise the lion’s share of what impacts human life where it counts. But was my amoral, transgressive investigation and appropriation of the car’s private contents any more defensible than J.’s ‘complicity’ in the technocratic, systematic investigation and appropriation of material resources for the power and profit of the few who fund and chiefly exploit those projects? Once again the mirror rises before me—thanks to the dream.

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