infinite weltschmerz

politics, philosophy, and other lonely musings

The Absurdist Shakespeare

The works of the French philosopher and intellectual Albert Camus stand among the most important of post-war French literature. Indeed, they count among the most important works of modern, 20th century literature by any measure. Camus’ absurdist philosophy, brought to us through essays, plays, and novels, are typically grouped as works of existentialism—though Camus did not consider himself to be an existentialist. Though William Shakespeare wrote centuries before Camus, and well-before existentialism had formed as a recognizable philosophical school, his plays offer exposition of many of the same themes and problems that troubled Camus and many other existentialist writers, from Kierkegaard and Nietzsche to Sartre and de Beauvoir. In the following, I will draw parallels between some points of Camus’ philosophy and some of Shakespeare’s best-known plays and passages.

One of Shakespeare’s most famous lines, voiced by the eponymous center of Hamlet:

To be, or not to be? That is the question—

Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And, by opposing, end them? (3.1.57-61) [1]

Hamlet is struggling with existence and suicide. Is life worth living, even where it is an existence of misery and suffering; or, conversely, is it better to ‘fight against life’ (or, at least, against its misery and suffering) by ending it? For Camus, there is a similar question to ask. “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. […] I see many people die because they judge that life is not worth living. [2]

As Hamlet agonizes over whether life is worth living in a state of melancholy and suffering, so Camus proposes to discuss and, ultimately, give an answer to what he calls the “problem of suicide”—though it is an answer “without the aid of eternal value which, temporarily perhaps, are absent or distorted in contemporary Europe.” [3]

Every text should be rightly understood to have a context. For Camus, the context is the Second World War, and the immense loss of life and suffering occurring across Europe and, indeed, the entire face of the Earth. Hamlet, though perhaps bereft of this wider sort of context, is nevertheless struggling with a suffering, though of a more personal nature; namely, the murder of his father by his uncle, the uncaring betrayal he perceives in his mother, and his indecision over whether to seek revenge on his uncle.

Hamlet continues:

For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,

Th’ oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,

The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,

The insolence of office, and the spurns

That patient merit of th’ unworthy takes,

When he himself might his quietus make

With a bare bodkin? (3.1.71-77)

Hamlet’s hesitation at ending his life thus stems from fear of death, which is perhaps subsumed under a more general fear of the unknown. Hamlet further seems to imply this is the source of all hesitation to suicide, all fear of death or the unknown. We might say that this fear of the unknown I speak of, in the case of death, has to do with our everyday denial or negation of death (and therefore suicide):

I come at last to death and to the attitude we have toward it. […] Yet one will never be sufficiently surprised that everyone lives as if no one “knew.” This is because in reality there is no experience of death. Properly speaking, nothing has been experienced but what has been lived and made conscious. […] The horror comes in reality from the mathematical aspect of the event [of death]. If time frightens us, this is because it works out the problem and the solution comes afterward. [4]

The fear of the unknown that Hamlet identifies as the primary ‘reason’ (if we can properly speak of reasons in this context) staying our hand from our knife, as Camus tells it, stems from the fact that there is no experience to be had of death. We have no comparison to make or, at least, no good one—a long, dreamless sleep seems as near as we can get to what it would be ‘like’ to be dead. But that is no good, since we do not typically fear to sleep, even when we are wholly exhausted and will be asleep many hours or even an entire day.

Furthermore, death is, for Camus, oblivion; it is the total, irrevocable destruction of the self. Hamlet does not seem to give voice to the sort of atheistic conception of death as oblivion that Camus holds, and yet he worries “in that sleep of death, what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil.” (3.1.67-68). In this sense, then, the problem of death and suicide is different for Camus than Hamlet. Hamlet’s fear seems to halt at our ignorance of what (if anything) comes after death—dreams? nothing? heaven?—while under Camus’ conception, fear is stronger since it not only encompasses Hamlet’s ignorance of the experience, but also oblivion, the total end of the self.

Of course, the fear of death is something that is mostly in the future. In our day to day lives, it is rare to think of it. Other than suicide and funerals, people likely do not consider their inevitable deaths. If one does happen to consider death (especially of oneself), it is likely not in the sort of reflective way that we see above. In this way, the concept of death is projected, as it were, into or onto the future. Consider the beginning of Macbeth’s famous ‘tomorrow’ soliloquy:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time,

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! (5.5.19-23) [5]

Macbeth has, by this late point in the play, mortgaged all of his yesterdays on the hope they would be able to purchase him a better tomorrow, secure with the prophetic knowledge of the witches, that “none of woman born shall harm Macbeth.” (4.1.80-81). Instead, his final yesterday has been spent, and he possesses no currency with which to purchase more tomorrows, and pinning his hopes on the future has come to naught. In a sense, the witches are fate’s messengers. Macbeth could not escape his fate no matter how many yesterdays he spent on this ideal tomorrow. Macbeth’s death at the hands of Macduff (who “was from his mother’s womb untimely ripped” (5.8.15-16), therefore “not of woman born” (4.1.80), and therefore able to harm Macbeth, as the witches warned him) is in the prophecy of the witches, though Macbeth does not realize it. The information granted him was just vague, though dazzling, enough to set Macbeth to this purpose, this future.

Here is Camus on the future:

We live on the future: “tomorrow,” “later on,” “when you have made your way,” “you will understand when you are old enough.” Such irrelevancies are wonderful, for, after all, it’s a matter of dying.” [6]

Understood in this context, Macbeth can be found in, and is applicable to, all of us, in our attitude towards future events. Modify the Camus quotation accordingly, and this becomes obvious and concrete:

We live on the future: “only four years until my degree is done,” “only a couple years more and I’ll get a promotion,” “only twenty years until I pay off that mortgage,” “just a few more years until I can retire.”

Camus wants to disabuse us of this habit of discounting the present in favor of the future. The future is always in flux and nothing is guaranteed. Therefore, we ought to focus on the moment, since the moment (or, at most, the immediate future) is the only part of our existence that is concrete.

Though it may seem as though Macbeth has fallen into this habit Camus identifies, another passage seems to tell a different story entirely:

The flighty purpose never is o’ertook

Unless the deed go with it. From this moment

The very firstlings of my heart shall be

The firstlings of my hand. And even now,

To crown my thoughts with acts, be it thought and done

[…]

This deed I’ll do before this purpose cool. (4.1.146-155)

However, Macbeth has not truly taken Camus’ lesson to heart. Rather than privileging the present over the future, and living in the moment, Macbeth has instead decided to throw critical reflection to the wind, and act purely on impulse. Macbeth finds himself rather the opposite of Hamlet, who is extreme in his inaction, caution, doubt, and reflection. But rather than swiftly bringing about his ideal future, Macbeth’s hasty—or non-existent—decision-making process only serves to further speed him on the path to his death. Camus is not, it should be noted, advocated for a more Macbeth-ian way of being. That would be a grave misunderstanding. Rather, Camus wishes us to understand the radical contingency of both the future and our hopes for it, the radical contingency of even those things that matter to us the most:

Not often do we consider this dimension of our connection with the world, the future, those we love, and our hopes and dreams. Rather we take the future and our hopes for granted, as if they are not contingent at all. An aspiring undergraduate dreams of grad school, but how can they know whether, in a few years’ time, their dream will not be forgotten, or no longer important, or even something they no longer desire at all? The self that exists now may be radically different from the self that exists in twenty years, or five years, or even one year. That is the essence of Camus’ exhortation to focus our energies on the present. If we fail to do this, we may someday realize we stand near the end of our life, and we have not accomplished any goals that are not simply a step in the path to another, more distant, future goal or desire.

For Camus, this attitude towards the present and the future is related to what he sees as the essential meaninglessness of the universe, of our lives. At bottom, there is nothing intrinsically meaningful to us: we live in a cold, uncaring universe that is silent even in the face of our most earnest pleadings. But it is in our continual search and pleading for meaning that the feeling of the absurd is to be found. ‘The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and unreasonable silence of the world.” [7]

Lear expresses this sentiment when he says, “Is man no more than this? […] Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.” [8] (3.4.95; 99-100). Lear is speaking to Edgar, who is disguised as Poor Tom the beggar. Still clothed in the trappings of his kingly station, Lear rips and tears at his clothes, to better suit his new station as just such an animal as he describes. Man, outside the trappings of civilization—or, to put it another way, outside the trappings of the usual meaning we ascribe to ourselves—is little better than a wild animal. And that description gets at Camus’ one of the main points of Sisyphus. Namely, that our normal ascriptions of meaning are merely our “way of acting as if everything has a meaning.” [9]

By the end of Sispyhus, we come to the realization that if we are to find meaning and redemption in a cold, meaningless world, it is through our own revolt against the absurd. Sisyphus finds himself condemned to forever push a stone up a precipice. He knows that he will never make it to the top, that the stone will forever fall back down, and he will be forced to once again begin the arduous journey towards the top, never reaching fulfillment. Yet, Camus writes, “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” [10]

Rather than Macbeth, who has become a prisoner of prophecy, of fate, we must find happiness in our struggle against the world, against the absurd. Though Iago is normally taken to be the consummate villain, near perfect in his evil, he gives voice to this sort of struggle when he says, “Virtue? A fig! ‘Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus.” [11] (1.3.319). Virtue, here being some sort of amorphous, transcendent, Platonic value of the cosmos itself, is something to be fought against or negated. It is in our own struggles that we are thus or thus.

Edmund, too, voices an opinion that it is not the cosmos or fate that controls our destiny, who we are, but rather ourselves: “I should have been that I am, had the maidenliest star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing.” (1.2.123-125). Rather than being controlled by the cosmos, the stars under which one was conceived (or born?), we must make ourselves who we are. Though this is somewhat different than Camus’ point, our vision for what a good life for us consists in will make use of what we find to be meaningful, of what values we hold to. Rather than affirming a transcendent view of the cosmos, Edmund places his values, and therefore his meaning, squarely in the material world. “Thou, nature, thou art my goddess. To thy law my services are bound.” (1.2.1-2). Combined with the previous quotation, Edmund can be read to be rejecting transcendental, or divine, views of the cosmos in favor of a thoroughgoing naturalist view, which is the sort of the view that provides the foundation of Camus’ problems with suicide, meaning, value, and life.

A short exchange between Iago and Roderigo further highlights this important theme in Othello:

Roderigo: It is silliness to live when to live is torment, and then have we a prescription to die when death is our physician.

Iago: Oh, villainous! I have looked upon the world for four times seven years, and since I could distinguish betwixt a benefit and an injury I never found a man who knew how to love himself. (1.3.309-314)

Roderigo is here playing the part of the man who cannot stomach the confrontation with Camus’ world, and views suicide as an escape, as a panacea for the human condition. Iago cites the rarity of a man who can honestly come to grips with such a confrontation, rather than either surrendering to suicide or denying the very absurd confrontation that Camus diagnoses in the very foundations of what it is to be human in this world.

A short search of various academic repositories shows seemingly little interest in comparing Shakespeare and Camus. Though Camus discusses Shakespeare in Sispyhus as well as mentions him in other essays and his journals, there is very little philosophical or literary attention paid to the thematic parallels of these two great writers. Unfortunate, since there is much to be made of Shakespeare’s characters as exemplifying many of Camus’ dearest concerns about the human condition. One could profit much reading both authors side by side, and considering the differing ways in which they approach these questions—and the different ways they offer answers to them.


 

[1] All Hamlet citations are taken from the following volume: Shakespeare, W. (2003). Hamlet (J. Crowther, Ed.). New York: Spark Publishing

[2] Camus, A., & O’Brien, J. (1991). The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. New York: Vintage Books. p. 3-4

[3] Camus (1991), preface

[4] Camus (1991), p. 15

[5] All Macbeth citations are taken from the following volume: Shakespeare, W. (2003). Macbeth (J. Crowther, Ed.). New York: Spark Publishing.

[6] Camus, A. (1991), p. 13

[7] Camus, A. (1991), p. 28

[8] All King Lear citations are taken from the following volume: Shakespeare, W. (2003). King Lear (J. Crowther, Ed.). New York: Spark Publishing.

[9] Camus, A. (1991), p. 57

[10] Camus, A. (1991), p. 123

[11] All Othello citations come from the following volume: Shakespeare, W. (2003). Othello (J. Crowther, Ed.). New York: Spark Publishing.

Intolerable

An assignment from class this semester: find something that is intolerable to us, an example being a video, or an article, and bring it to class/email it to the prof. Here is my example.

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Some thoughts on the Biblical prophets and Abraham Heschel

When one has never read a text[1] before, one can hardly be said to have an attitude to it—so it seems, at any rate. Of course, in at least one sense, the previous is false: many people, whether based on the authorship, the nationality, the historical period, or many other factors, prejudge a book, a text, without having ever considered the words within. More specifically, when I say ‘many other factors’, I refer to those who prejudge a book or a text based on other individuals or groups who read a particular text for a particular reason or in a particular way.

However, a contradiction has slithered into our thoughts. It seems impossible for someone who hasn’t read a book to have an attitude toward it, yet it seems just as impossible to come the Bible and not have any sort of attitude towards it. Hence, the dilemma: how can I change my attitude towards the biblical prophets when I haven’t any basis to have an attitude in the first place—yet also I find I am possessed of a very general and unconsidered attitude regarding the Bible? When Ezekiel relates his vision of the four figures, for example:

In the center of it were also the figures of four creatures. And this was their appearance: They had the figures of human beings. However, each had four faces, and each of them had four wings; the legs of each were [fused into] a single rigid leg, and the feet of each were like a single calf’s hoof; and their sparkle was like the luster of burnished bronze. They had human hands below their wings. The four of them had their faces and their wings on their four sides. Each one’s wings touched those of the other. They did not turn when they moved each could move in the direction of any of its faces.[2]

If one has little or no familiarity with scripture, with the Bible, and holds not to any faith system inspired by these texts, this can seem as the recounting of a hallucination—or the ravings of a lunatic.[3] Given a bit of patience, one can understand why so many non-believers declare scripture to be evil, immoral, nonsensical, anachronistic, and so on.

In reply, I would ask whether even the most hard-hearted non-believer could fail to be moved when he reads Jeremiah’s exhortation that only “if you do not oppress the stranger, the orphan, and the widow,”[4] only “if you do not shed the blood of the innocent in this place,”[5] will the promised land be attained; only under the shade of pure justice will the covenant be realized. We see the very foundations of morality on display, many centuries before the Renaissance, before the Enlightenment, before any secular moral philosophy as we know it had been formulated. When the common reaction of non-believers to this line of thinking is to vehemently deny the Bible has any kind of moral authority, it’s surprising to find such moving and relevant prose.

Then again, we ought to be mindful of Abraham Heschel:

The prophet is an iconoclast, challenging the apparently holy, revered, and awesome. Beliefs cherished as certainties, institutions endowed with supreme sanctity, he exposes as scandalous pretensions.[6]

The connection with Jeremiah is even more important when we realize that Heschel goes on to illustrate the meaning of the above passage by using Jeremiah 6:20 and 7:21-7:23[7]. Jeremiah would be invoked, in the present, by those holding “beliefs cherished as certainties”, whose religious institutions are “endowed with supreme sanctity”. In short, and with an unfortunately unknowing irony, the iconoclast is invoked by the traditionalist, the fundamentalist, to uphold exactly the sort of unquestionable beliefs and institutions that make up so much modern religion. The struggle, for a non-believer, becomes how to understand the Bible, the prophets, when they are cited as a fundamental arbiter of truth, of history, of prophecy, or morality, and simultaneously understood (in the context of a scholarly reading of scripture) quite differently than the common, lay understanding of so many Christians.[8]

Consider another passage from Jeremiah:

You will always win, O Lord, whenever I lodge a complaint against you; still, I would address you on a matter of law. Why is it that wicked men prosper, why do liars and backstabbers thrive? You must plant them if they take root; if they flourish and then bear fruit, you must be listening to their words—but not, somehow, to their thoughts.[9]

This translation, taken from James Kugel, is far different from a possibly more poetic English translation, of which Kugel offers us the first line: “Thou art just, O Lord, when I complain against Thee.”[10] But it services to illustrate the importance of translation to understanding, and to cultivating a considered view of the Bible and the prophets.

The former translation offers a much more jurisprudential interpretation than the more poetic ‘Thou art just’ version. By even speaking of jurisprudential, we seem to have a more Jewish, rather than Christian, understanding of Jeremiah. In the latter, the first line seems much more a plea, but the plea of an a child to a parent, of a worker to a supervisor. The first, legalistic rendering of the Hebrew seems far more relevant to our own world. To see this, all we need consider is the events of November the 25th, in Missouri. Voices all across the nation are crying out, lodging complaints, through social media, television, telephones, and more. They’re asking us how events could have turned out as they have, how our justice system could have so totally failed us. How, in short, could the very system that is supposed to ensure justice be so bereft of it? Rather than “liars and backstabbers”, though, we wonder at the powerful, the wealthy, those who seem to always win, though we continue to lodge complaints seemingly without effect, and we cannot understand such a world; yet we lodge complaints anyway, though it seems entirely futile.

At this point, we may again turn to Heschel for a deeper understanding of the relevance of the prophets to our own age:

The prophet is intent on intensifying responsibility, is impatient of excuse, contemptuous of pretense and self-pity. His tone, rarely sweet or caressing, is frequently consoling and disburdening; his words are often slashing, even horrid—designed to shock rather than edify.[11]

As we go about our day tomorrow, in the aftermath of Ferguson, there will be those among us possessed of a wild-eyed, unquenchable thirst for justice. They will march, they will yell, they will write, they will protest. To many of us, myself included, this may be as incomprehensible as Ezekiel passage quoted above. Yet, they will be as the prophets are described by Heschel. They will accept no excuse for their perception of injustice, their tone will be harsh, and their words will grate. But their attempt is to shock the world out of its moral stupor, to ‘intensify…responsibility’ for what is happening right in front of us.

The most fascinating and edifying realization, given all the above, is not only that the Bible is crucially relevant to the 21st century, but that it need not be brought into modernity only in one way, or through one understanding. Anyone can engage with the Bible and with the prophets, on their own terms, and be much profited by the experience.

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all citations of Scripture are from the following translation and edition:
Berlin, A., Brettler, M., & Fishbane, M. (Eds.). (2004). The Jewish Study Bible: Jewish Publication Society Tanakh Translation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[2] Ezekiel 1:5-1:9 (p. 1046-1047)

[3] Perhaps even a devout, though unread, believer would be forgiven for jumping to such conclusions.

[4] Jeremiah 7:6 (p. 939)

[5] Ibid.

[6] Heschel, A. (2001). The Prophets. New York: Harper & Row. p. 12

[7] Ibid.

[8] And, perhaps, most especially, in the context of Judaism rather than the oppressive and omnipresent Christian tradition of Western culture—particularly the United States.

[9] Kugel, J. (1999). The Great Poems of the Bible: A Reader’s Companion with New Translations. New York: Free Press. p. 211

[10] Ibid., p. 213

[11] Heschel (2001) p. 8

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