Monday, October 12, 2009

2009.10.12 - Tolstoy, Orwell, and the Tao of Shakespeare

I've been flipping through Orwell's The Collected Essays Vol 2, and came across the laconic and amusingly ambivalent defense he made against Tolstoy's splenetic dismissal of Shakespeare. Orwell paraphrases Tolstoy's attact as:
... purporting to show not only that Shakespeare was not the great man he was claimed to be, but that he was a writer entirely without merit, one of the worst and most contemptible writers the world has ever seen.

(A quick Yahoo found Tolstoy's article transcribed and in English, on Scribd.)

Now I can't say that I am a big fan of Tolstoy because I am not. Not at all. But still I find this interesting, and also interesting that neither this item nor Orwell's bemusing response was ever alluded to, let alone discussed in my Shakespeare classes.

On the other hand, I've always been a fan of Orwell's writing and his paraphrase of Tolstoy's argument is far more entertaining than is Tolstoy's heavy handed writing. For example, Orwell summarizes Tolstoy's position as follows:
Tolstoy's main contention is that Shakespeare is a trivial, shallow writer, with no coherent philosophy, no thoughts or ideas worth bothering about, no interest in social or religious problems, no grasp of character or probability, and, in so far as he could be said to have a definable attitude at all, with a cynical, immoral, worldly outlook on life. He accuses him of patching his plays together without caring twopence for credibility, of dealing in fantastic fables and impossible situations, of making his characters talk in an artificial flowery language completely unlike that of real life. He also accuses him of thrusting anything and everything into his plays — soliloquies, scraps of ballads, discussions, vulgar jokes and so forth — without stopping to think whether they had anything to do with the plot, and also of taking for granted the immoral power politics and unjust social distinctions of the times he lived in. Briefly, he accuses him [of] being a hasty, slovenly writer, a man of doubtful morals, and above all, of not being a thinker (154).

Okay, okay, this didn't hurt me at all. But it strongly suggests why I do not care for Tolstoy's writing. What I mean is that Tolstoy's polemic is a list of those things in Shakespeare's writing that makes it live and breath — as its longevity argues. In every way, even with the poetical nature of his language, Shakespeare brings to the stage a compressed but startlingly precise and vibrant snapshot of the simplicity and complexity of what comprises being human in the physical world. Despite our intellectual fascination with morality and moralistic fascination with purity, life is a complicated expression of the profane and the sacred, the prosaic and the existential, the beautiful and the foul — that is what comprises capital 'L' life and that 'is-ness' cannot be intellectualized away. Shakespeare's language, characters, and situations, whether historical or magical, express all capital 'L' life because, despite our childish pining for singular truth and pure beauty, our lives are filled with scraps from hither and yon, the fantastical and mundane. Tolstoy's writing, what little I have struggled through, anyway, is heavily laced with what he thinks a meaningful, i.e. moral, life 'should' be comprised of, not that with which capital 'L' Life actually is.

In his way, Orwell supplies a similar kind of rebuttal to Tolstoy's rant as this, but in a more convoluted manner. Or maybe it is a simpler one!? Anyway, Orwell wrote that
One must conclude that there is something good — something durable — in Shakespeare which millions of ordinary people can appreciate, though Tolstoy happened to be unable to do so. [Shakespeare] can survive exposure of the fact that he is a confused thinker whose plays are full of improbabilities. He can no more be debunked by such methods than you can destroy a flower by preaching a sermon at it (156-7).
Orwell is most amusing here, because even as he puts down Shakespeare as a 'confused thinker,' he himself uses a similar poetical metaphor as Shakespeare to argue its long-lived appeal — nature, natural Life, trumps intellectual morality.

While thinking and writing the above, I had the great joy of experiencing a delightful fushigi, (Japanese for wondrous event). I stumbled across a delightful, almost identical argument to Orwell's and mine, albeit couched in the Zen language of D.T. Suzuki in his book Zen and Japanese Culture:
There is a famous saying by one of the earlier masters of the T'ang dynasty, which declares that the Tao is no more than one's everyday life experience. When the master was asked what he meant by this, he replied, "When you are hungry you eat, when are are thirsty you drink, when you meet a friend you greet him."

This, some may think, is no more than animal instinct or social usage, and there is nothing that may be called moral, much less spiritual, in it. If we call it the Tao, some may think, what a cheap thing the Tao is after all!

Those who have not penetrated into the depths of our consciousness, including both the conscious and unconscious, are liable to hold such a mistaken notion as the one just cited. But we must remember that, if the Tao is something highly abstract transcending daily experiences, it will have nothing to do with the actualities of life. Life
as we live it is not concerned with [intellectual or moral] generalization. If it were, the intellect would be everything, and the philosopher would be the wisest man. But, as Kierkegaard points out, the philosopher builds a fine palace, but he is doomed not to live in it — he has a shed for himself next door to what he constructed for others, including himself, to look at.
The Tao is really very much more than mere animal instinct and social usage, though those elements are also included in it. It is something deeply imbedded in every one of us, indeed in all beings sentient and non-sentient, and it requires something altogether different from so-called scientific analysis. It defies our intellectual pursuit because of being too concrete, too familiar, hence beyond definability. It is there confronting us, no doubt, but not obtrusively and threateningly, like Mount Everest to the mountain-climbers (11-2 — my emphasis).
Is not Suzuki's Mt. Evererst analogy exactly identical to Orwell's with the flower? Nature trumps intellect! That is the key to the long-lived vitality of Shakespeare's writing — it embodies the natural world of man more fully than perhaps any other writer in English. This is what Tolstoy's long rant is about, the head feeling left out of living text. And with that thought, how similar is Tolstoy's list of failures to that of the contention that the Tao, to those who who lack depth of understanding of life, is nothing more than cheap animal instinct or unreflective acquiescence to societal mores.

Shakespeare looked into the world of social man without any sort of intellectualized or moralistic or religio-philosophic self-deception or delusion, by which manner he compassed the heart of man even as he talked directly to it. His clarity of sight united with the brilliance of his writing to effectively, meaning-fully, by-pass the intellect. This is likely why Tolstoy wrote Bill off as 'contemptible'. Tolstoy, Orwell, and other great thinkers who put thinking as the sine qua non of being man, are unable to see the sophistication of thought required to not be bamboozled by the bright lights of intellectual achievement, or moralistic sentimentality.

There are many examples of writing of the kind I am describing here. For example, in Henry V when Hal disguises himself as a foot soldier and engages in a quiet, powerful discussion on the meaning of death as a soldier (4.1). And these gems show up in the silliest of comedies, for example when Luciana pleads on behalf of her sister in Comedy of Errors (3.2). The examples are endless, but most broadly is how he wrote, throughout his works, fully realized and embodied women. His women are neither idealized nor vilified even when the characters are good, bad, sexual, prudish, silly, strong, emancipated or kept — and in his plays they are all these things and more. Oh! And Shakespeare was an equal opportunity guy, for the men are equally treated.

If I was going to spend the rest of my days on an island, and was stuck reading one author, I can assure you it would not be Tolstoy. Nor would it be Orwell. It would be Shakespeare, because his writing is the way of life — Tao.