On Monday 22, 2020 we met for an introductory conversation from the “Sonnets in Colour: Shakespeare on the frontline” series.
Here is an audio excerpt from this conversation (the questions and answers section was not recorded, to allow for a freer flow of the conversation). And below, you can read a (somewhat more crystallised) write-up of the same content.
Our conversation begins at a crucial juncture in the story of our lives, a fork in humanity’s evolution.
We have received the biggest wake-up call so far, and it is also our greatest chance.
A rude awakening. A great disruption. A global pause.
Our chance to pause and look at ourselves — individually and collectively, each of us alone — and all of us together. And there is no subtler mirror — nor more sublime — than the infinitely puzzling sequence of Shakespeare sonnets…
Shall we look at our story, the story of humanity, as a mythological hero’s journey?
This gaudy hero, galloping into the future on his white horse — and suddenly, he sees an old, frail woman by the side of the road. He is given a choice: to continue his journey, which seems so important — or to stop, and to help. Almost in spite of himself, he stops — surprised by his own choice. And this is what saves him — because he was galloping towards an inevitable self-destruction.
That’s what just happened in our collective story: as a collective, we decided to risk our economic well-being for the sake of the old, the frail, the weak. In the fog of rising fears and anxieties, it is easy to lose the scale of this event. But in the grand scheme of things, it is on a par with what happened just a few centuries ago, at about Shakespeare’s time — when the humanity suddenly decided that slavery is not OK anymore.
It has been a very special leg in the evolutionary story of humanity, these four centuries separating us from Shakespeare. For the first time, the individual human mind claimed the power to run the human life — beyond the predetermined social roles and routines and rules. This is the power of individual choice — that’s why Shakespeare could be a poet and a playwright — and not a glover, like his father.
Now, we are looking back at the mind’s journey — and what happens next is up to us. There are many challenges ahead, and what we need to face them is an open heart and a clear mind.
That’s where Shakespeare is going to help us.
In poetry, language — the mind’s main medium of being — works differently.
In fact, it doesn’t “work” at all, but rather — lives: as an ocean of semantic waves, which can transmute and transform the neural machinery of the mind, creating new and powerful connections, tapping into the deepest recesses of memory. And even the occasional obscurity of Shakespeare’s language can help us here — because these poems aren’t supposed to be “understood”, not in the usual sense of the word, and so we can just allow the mind to be puzzled, to not know, to un-know — and simply swim in these semantic waves.
Shakespeare the playwright is unbelievably, unimaginably god-like. This universal mind, which envisions, creates, and contains so many strikingly different humans: Juliet and King Lear, Othello and Hamlet… and each living their own story, and it is at the interface between a human being and a story line that the drama of life plays itself out. Just imagine Othello and Hamlet exchanging stories:
Othello getting even the slightest hint that his uncle the king is a treacherous murderer — no problem, just go kill the king and become the next king… no drama, no tragedy at all. And vice versa: what would Hamlet do in Othello’s shoes? What he does best: think, hesitate, look for evidence…. No drama, no tragedy, and Desdemona lives…
Shakespeare the playwright is always behind the scenes, creating human beings and their stories, their slices of suffering — with compassion, but also with detachment. This universal mind is just a container, a space: never on the frontline of human experience; everyone, and no-one.
But the “I” of the sonnets is utterly different and painfully human.
Suddenly, this universal mind is utterly caught up in the human drama, trapped by his own story of love, suffering, and betrayal. Here, we see Shakespeare on the frontline of human experience — as vulnerable, and (occasionally) as absurdly stupid — as any one of us.
There was never yet philosopher that could endure the toothache patiently.
But the “I” of the sonnet and the author of the sonnet aren’t exactly the same “self” either, and so the sonnet allows you to move fluidly between these layers of selfhood — from the one who acts, and lives, and suffers — to the one who tries to observe, and make sense of it all — to the one who composes the story, the playwright of your own drama.
Like a powerful mirror, they allow us to see in ourselves what we cannot see otherwise. And in seeing, there is a potential for liberation.
Many years ago, my personal journey lead me into a space quite similar to where we find ourselves now, as a collective, as the whole of humanity.
My life as I had know it suddenly stopped, and I was lost, drowning in the mess (which I brought upon myself). In this dark forest of my life, I returned to the dream of my childhood — painting — and then, seven years later, this path brought me to Shakespeare’s sonnets — to the idea of painting the sonnets.
Painting the sonnets meant, for me, living them — fusing my moment-to-moment visual experiences with the journey of the sonnets. And this process transformed my life beyond anything my mind could have ever conceived. It completely deconstructed my old “reality”. It liberated my mind from its many blinders and filters, and cleansed my doors of perception.
But the drama of the sonnets (as they are usually interpreted) — the older man, the younger man, the dark lady; the lust, the betrayals, the love triangles… this drama has always been alien to me as a person. My life’s melodrama is completely different (just like Hamlet’s drama is different from Othello’s)…
What attracted me to them (and at first, this happened beyond my conscious awareness), and what gradually grew clearer and clearer as I was painting them — exists on a completely different, deeper level, hidden behind the maya of this drama. What this mirror revealed to me is a kind of transmission, a transmission across time and space, and as urgently relevant now as it ever has been.
As I was painting, the sonnets sequence started to split itself into “chapters”, corresponding to what I think of as paradoxes of human condition. And the first chapter (sonnets 1-9) is the “Paradox of Self”: thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel… And this is where I suggest we start, one sonnet at a time — beginning with the first sonnet on Sunday, March 29th 2020 (10AM Pacific time).
Since the language of sonnets can be obscure, and this may feel like an obstacle, here are some ways to find your personal connection with a sonnet.
The first “tip” comes to Marina Tsvetaeva, a tragic Russian poet of the last century.
She once said that, in each poem, a couple of lines come from God, and the rest is just a human composing a context for them. In Shakespeare’s case, it may well be that the whole sonnet came from God, but nonetheless: in every sonnet, there will be a line or two that will resonate with you even if the rest is completely incomprehensible. This is your best point of connection. (For example, my point of connection to Sonnet 1 was “making a famine where abundance lies — thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel”).
Another possibility is to experiment with different perspectives:
Does the sonnet “read” better if you identify with its “I”, or with its “thou”? Or maybe it is better read “in the third person”, as an outside observer? Again, for me, the first sonnet really came alive when I started reading it as addressed to myself — as though I, or even to the whole of modern humankind (and not some imaginary young man) were the “thou” of the sonnet, making a famine where abundance lies.
Sonnets are filled with metaphors — the same pattern, the same phenomenon manifested and seen in different ways, in different contexts. And it is often useful just to take these metaphors literally — so that, to continue with the same example: what if it is really about making a famine where abundance lies? What if, in our gluttony, we literally “eat” the world?
And last but not least, I also offer you my visual responses, painting translations of the sonnets, as another possible point of connection. Here, to begin with is the first sonnet painting (and below, is the text and the audio of the first sonnet).
From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty’s rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy light’s flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
Thou that art now the world’s fresh ornament
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content
And, tender churl, mak’st waste in niggarding.
Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.