Was it the proud full sail of his great verse?

Lena Levin. "Window". 30"x20". In progress.
Lena Levin. “Window”. 30″x20″. In progress.

This week, I started the preliminary study of Sonnet 86 (“Was it the proud full sail of his great verse…”). “Study” is probably not the right word for this process of letting the sonnet sink fully into my mind-body system and create the seed of a future painting. This description makes the process seem awfully like sexual intercourse, and maybe it is, indeed, a more appropriate simile than “study”.

I am trying to get (back) into biweekly rhythm for this series — a week of preliminary deep engagement with the sonnet, and then a week of painting the sonnet. Like slow (very slow) breathing in and out. This gives me every other week to paint other things — just to keep me alive through the “breathing in” week. This week, I returned to the view from my studio window, which I started two weeks earlier, while studying Sonnet 85.   

Unexpectedly, I realised on Monday that 86 is the last sonnet of the composition I am working on, which I call, for now, “Poem and Muse”.

There is a certain randomness in how the sequence gets broken into these nine-sonnets and sixteen-sonnets sequences; the only mathematical “given” in this is that there will be ten nine-sonnets composition and four sixteen-sonnets composition — this “solution” is determined uniquely by the total number of sonnets. For some reason, I imagined this one will contain sixteen sonnets, but there is a very logical thematic break between eight six and eighty seven – I have no idea how I missed it before. It means that a lot of compositional adjustments I did to individual paintings to create the sense of overall unity were misguided, but somewhat miraculously, the unexpected shift to the nine-sonnets idea works, even though it changes the relative positioning of the individual paintings radically.

On the other hand, the shift gives me an opening into this sonnet, the last sonnet of the composition. It contains, in a sense, a summary, a collage of the whole subsequence, and ends in a complete breakdown of “matter” (“then lacked I matter“). In the future painting, I imagine, it will be a cubist-like breakdown of form. And the colour harmony is also largely determined by the painting’s role in the composition: it ought to lean towards reds, for the sake of the overall harmony. This is a very abstract vision so far, but it’s a beginning.

I love how this sonnet suggests familiarity with ghosts/spirits/muses that visit the “rival” poet, as though they are the same ghosts. This rhymes with my thoughts over these last days, about our basic (in)ability to share experiences. Even if we think we recognise an experience from someone else’s description, it may still be a delusion.

On many levels, it’s a continuation of the previous sonnet’s themes; the challenge is not the very existence of someone else’s great verse (or great paintings, as it happens), but the suspicion that the experience you need to share is already expressed, so there is nothing to be added. It’s only the gap between inner experience and its outer expression, their incomplete alignment, that opens the path for the next artist, the hope to add something new, even if it’s only saying the same old thing in a new way.   

Shakespeare on subjective experience of time: Painting sonnets 50 and 51

Our subjective experience of time is one of the most mysterious and paradoxical things I know. Mostly, we seem to just flow with the time, unable or unwilling to step outside and marvel at the strangeness of the whole experience.

Shakespeare’s “horseback” sonnets (fifty and fifty one) give us an opportunity to look at this strangeness “from the outside”, while still experiencing its emotional repercussions vicariously. They share a very well-defined “objective” setting: their speaker is on a road, riding away from his beloved. The scene is so concrete and tangible that it’s easy to think about these sonnets as a missing soliloquy from “Romeo and Juliet”: Romeo on the road to Mantua.

Lena Levin. Sonnet 50: How heavy do I journey on the way
Lena Levin. Sonnet 50: How heavy do I journey on the way. 2013. Click the image to see the sonnet and the painting together.

The continuity of this setting forms the background for an amazingly swift and drastic change of the speaker’s subjective experience. Heaviness, sadness, and anger of the fiftieth sonnet transform into lightness, joy, and love in the fifty first. Even the speed of the horse seems to have increased dramatically, but this cannot be the case — what have changed instead is the rider’s experience of time.

Just try to read these sonnets aloud to yourself to feel this change and notice how the rhythm changes, reflecting this increasing speed (or, if you prefer to listen to them, click the first line to hear Edward Bennett reading them):

How heavy do I journey on the way,
When what I seek, my weary travel’s end,
Doth teach that ease and that repose to say,
‘Thus far the miles are measured from thy friend!’

The beast that bears me, tired with my woe,
Plods dully on, to bear that weight in me,
As if by some instinct the wretch did know
His rider loved not speed being made from thee.

The bloody spur cannot provoke him on,
That sometimes anger thrusts into his hide,
Which heavily he answers with a groan,
More sharp to me than spurring to his side;

For that same groan doth put this in my mind,
My grief lies onward, and my joy behind.


Thus can my love excuse the slow offence

Of my dull bearer when from thee I speed:
From where thou art why should I haste me thence?
Till I return, of posting is no need.

O what excuse will my poor beast then find,
When swift extremity can seem but slow?
Then should I spur, though mounted on the wind;
In winged speed no motion shall I know:

Then can no horse with my desire keep pace;
Therefore desire of perfect’st love being made,
Shall neigh — no dull flesh — in his fiery race;
But love, for love, thus shall excuse my jade:

Since from thee going he went wilful slow,
Towards thee I’ll run, and give him leave to go.

The question was, how to translate this transformation into the language of painting?

The answer I found is in the next question: how the rider sees what’s in front of him before and after the transformation? Since its the mind that constructs visible “reality” from the data supplied by the eyes, the view must change dramatically. This is what these two paintings show: one landscape as seen from inside two different states of mind.

Lena Levin. Sonnet 51: In winged speed no motion shall I know. 2013.
Lena Levin. Sonnet 51: In winged speed no motion shall I know. 2013. Click the image to see the sonnet and the painting together.

If you don’t think such a change is possible, it’s just because such extreme changes in the inner state tend to detract our attention from visual experiences.

But how did this happen?

A levelheaded, reasonable person might probably answer that the speaker sees things “as they really are”, “objectively” in the first sonnet  — but then moves to a dreamy (if not downright hallucinatory) state in the second. I must admit, my paintings might seem to suggest something of this interpretation: the first one certainly looks more “representational” than the second — but wouldn’t the swift extremity of motion blur the landscape?

Anyway, I believe this reasonable character I imagined in the previous paragraph would miss the whole point: the mental shift that accomplished this transformation is not from “objective reality” to a hallucination, and not from the present to the future — but from one future to another, just a bit more distant one. If someone looked at the whole scene really, really “objectively”, from outside the speaker’s mind, then the momentary present state of affairs would be exactly the same on the journey back — the same road, the same horse, the same aloneness of the rider (well, the horse would be looking in the opposite direction, but this certainly isn’t enough to explain the sudden change of mood).

This means it is not the present that is reflected in the rider’s gloomy mood in the first sonnet, it’s the future — the future of being away from the beloved. This future shapes the rider’s present into the sensations of weight in me, sadness and irrational anger towards the poor beast (who, after all, just follows his unexpressed wish to slow down even more). That’s why this swift shift to another future is enough to change subjective experience of the present so completely. And after all, the moment-to-moment subjective experience is all we have — and thus the future appears to define the present (instead of being determined by it, as we ordinarily think about it).

Why is it that the future has so much power over the present?

Take love, for example: the illusion of “happy ever-after” is so seductive that the genuineness of present love is often equated with its indefinite extension into the future. If we followed this idea to its logical conclusion, it would turn out that one cannot know for sure if the love they feel now is “true” until they are dead. Doesn’t this sound absurd? Thankfully, love tends to bring one into the present moment so forcefully and irresistibly that the subjective experience of time almost dissolves into thin air, as though the time didn’t exist at all. Otherwise, the uncertainty of future would lead us to hopelessly loveless lives and cancel any possibility of “happy ever-after” altogether. 

What if, like I suggested in the beginning of this post, we read these sonnets as a “missing scene” from “Romeo and Juliet”? Here are the words that would precede this scene (the link will take you to the whole farewell scene on the “Open source Shakespeare” website):

Juliet: O think’st thou we shall ever meet again?
Romeo: I doubt it not; and all these woes shall serve
For sweet discourses in our time to come.

This the exact same motion of the mind towards another future that we see in the sonnets (this parallel is what made me imagine the speaker of the sonnets as Romeo in the first place). But if the rider of the sonnets is Romeo, then we know that this better future never happened; Romeo’s return to Verona was in fact more tragic than the journey to Mantua. But what of that? When this new present came, it could in no way change the quality of this moment. Romeo just creates for himself a present moment of love-filled joy out of thin air (just like Juliet creates an earlier moment of togetherness by believing that a lark is a nightingale, and that it is not yet near day in the farewell scene). And in the timeframe of their short lives, every moment of joy is worth a year at least.  

 The Romeo and Juliet interpretation of the sonnets is, of course, totally speculative. It’s just a way to illustrate the idea that the future need not exist to affect the present. These three scenes — Romeo and Juliet’s farewell, his journey away, and his journey back — are nested within one another like Matryoshka dolls: as the farewell contains the journey away as its defining moment, so the journey away contains the journey back. This nesting seems to me to be a fitting metaphor for all the futures that shape our present moments: they are contained within the present, and that’s where their power over it comes from.

It’s quite likely that what I will say in conclusion is the most obvious thing in the world for you — or, on the contrary, it might sound most counterintuitive and bizarre. As for me, I tend to vacillate between these points of view, yet these sonnets made me experience the visceral truth of this: At any present moment, the future doesn’t exist except within this moment (and of course, only insofar as it is present within someone’s mind).

The good news, of course, is that one can choose a “future” that shapes their personal present with sheer power of imagination — and see the world transform, (more or less) as it does in these two paintings.

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Stephen Greenblatt on Shakespearean Beauty, and some absurdly optimistic thoughts on love and vision

Once upon a time, as a ten-year old girl, I found myself contemplating “the three wishes” I would ask a fairy to fulfil; not that I really believed in fairies, but I reckoned it would make sense to be prepared just in case.

I had some qualms about my appearance, so the first thought that floated up my mind was “beauty”, but I had read enough fairy tales to be careful. I knew all the fairies have this uncanny ability to turn one’s wishes upside down by understanding them too literally. I imagined that if I asked for “beauty”, without any specifics, I might accidentally turn into some kind of boring and stupid “ideal”, which would have nothing to do with me. For example, I was sure I would by no means want to end up as a fair blue-eyed blonde; I’d rather turn into a frog.

Valentin Serov. Girl with peaches. 1887.
Valentin Serov. Girl with peaches. 1887.

Faced with this very real danger, I spent some time trying to make my wish more specific and close any potential loopholes for the future fairy’s mischief, but the more I thought about it, the more hopeless the whole enterprise seemed: whatever desirable quality I tried to formulate with the required precision, my mind would immediately come up with some overblown, absurd visual interpretation. I ended up resolving that I’d rather remain as I am, with all my imperfections on my head, than risk any of the fairy’s cosmetic efforts.

Thus, as a child, I stumbled upon the conflict between beauty and individuation, this feeling that turning into a perfect beauty may, by the same token, turn me into some “non-me” (and the resulting impossibility to describe beauty as a set of specific qualities), which, according to Stephen Greenblatt, originates in Renaissance ideas on beauty. He begins his essay on “Shakespearean beauty marks” (in the Shakespeare’s Freedom) with this quote from Leon Battista Alberti’s Art of Building:

“[Beauty] is that reasoned harmony of all the parts within a body, so that nothing may be added, taken away, or altered, but for the worse… ”   

 Greenblatt writes:

“The cunning of this definition is its programmatic refusal of specificity. It is not this or that particular feature that makes something beautiful; rather it is an interrelation of all the parts in a whole.”   

This way to think of beauty explains

“<…> why there is so little specificity in Renaissance accounts of beauty, including Shakespeare’s. Responses to beauty are everywhere in his work, and they are often remarkably intense, but for the most part they are, to borrow Musil’s phrase, “without qualities”. “Those parts of thee that the world’s eye doth view,” begins sonnet 69, “Want nothing that the thought of hearts can mend.” The visible beauty of the beloved literally leaves nothing to the imagination, and the fact that the parts are not specified in any way only reinforces the sense that the effect is produced not by this or that attractive attribute but by a harmonious integration of ideal proportions.”

Indeed, although the young man’s beauty is a major “hero” of the sonnets, we know next to nothing about how he actually looks. There is no specific image, no individual features; nothing to help us picture him. His beauty might leave nothing to the viewer’s imagination, but the way it is translated into sonnets leaves (paradoxically) everything to the reader’s imagination (so I, for example, am free to imagine him as Titian’s young man with a glove). Greenblatt’s point, though, is that this very lack of individuation is a representation of the Renaissance highest ideal of beauty, which finds its expression in painting as well:

Featurelessness is for Elizabethan culture the ideal form of human beauty. In her many portraits the queen’s clothes and jewels are depicted with fantastic attention to detail, but her face again and again is a blank, expressionless mask. Perhaps, despite the intense emphasis on materiality in the representation of dress, the mask of the face is the Renaissance intimation of what Schiller called the “annihilation of the material” in a truly beautiful work of art or what Winckelmann termed the quality in beauty of Unbezeichnung: “Beauty should be like the most perfect water drawn from the lap of the spring, which, the less taste it has, the healthier it is considered to be, because it is purified of all foreign parts.” The figures Shakespeare celebrates as beautiful cannot altogether float free of matter, but the conspicuous lack of content in the term beauty, as he uses it, is a gesture toward this freedom.”

Leonardo da Vinch. Lady with an ermine. 1489–1490
Leonardo da Vinch. Lady with an ermine. 1489–1490

Any sign of individuation, any mark of uniqueness, any kind of personality can only be a deviation from the ideal canon of beauty. In short, what makes us different — distinguishable from one another in any way — is what makes us ugly.

In Shakespeare’s time, according to Greenblatt, this fusion between individuation and ugliness was underscored by the fact that blemishes (moles, birthmarks, scars) and deformities were the only evidence available to identify someone, be it — as often happens in Shakespeare’s comedies — a long-lost child, a fallen soldier on the battlefield, or a run-away slave. In absence of dental records, fingerprints, and DNA samples, if you are to be recognised at all, it’s by blemishes on your skin and deformities of your body, these obvious deviations from the ideal human being. As an aside, I cannot help thinking that our age of Botox and Photoshop has but materialised the Renaissance ideal of expressionless faces and spotless bodies.

Shakespeare, on the contrary, did a lot to subvert this ideal — I will return to this theme when I come to the “dark lady” sonnets. The “young man” sonnets, though, seem to embody the ideal of featureless perfect beauty, but with one important qualification: what is challenged in this sequence is the mythological (one might even say, spiritual) foundation of this ideal, the implied Neo-Platonic link between goodness and beauty, between sin and ugliness.

Greenblatt traces the idea of featureless beauty to the power of Christianity:

“For centuries, Jesus and Mary were both routinely described, in the most literal as well as metaphoric sense, as immaculate, uniquely born without blemish or mark. Beauty, writes a mid-seventeenth-century English clergyman, “consists in three particulars; the perfection of the lineaments, the due proportion of them each to other, and the excellency and purity of the colour. They are all complete in the soul of Christ.” And it is not Christ’s soul alone, the preacher observes that is the epitome of perfect beauty, but his body as well.”

Leonardo da Vinci. Madonna Litta. ca. 1490.
Leonardo da Vinci. Madonna Litta. ca. 1490.

The reference is to a book of sermons preached by the Reverend Dr. Mark Frank, printed in 1672. The reverend goes on to observe that every human being ever born has some defect, some kind of stain or mole; in fact, if we cannot see one another’s ugliness (representing outwardly our inescapable sinfulness), it’s only because of congenital defect of our vision. Greenblatt writes:

“Such defect, in this time-honoured Christian vision (a vision that effortlessly crossed the boundary dividing Catholic and Protestant), is the outward mark of the inner sin that stains all humans from their conception. Could we see with perfectly clear eyes, we would find nothing to praise in mortal bodies.”

The perfect beauty, then, is the outward manifestation of perfect goodness and innocence, impossible for mortals:

“Thus it is only in and with Christ, in the resurrected bodies of those who are saved, that human beings are cleansed of their unsightly blemishes. At the Last Judgment, according to theologians, all scars, wrinkles, and other marks on the flesh of the blessed would disappear, and each individual body would achieve its perfect form. All forms of “spottedness,” as John Wilkins enumerated them—“Blemish, Blot, Blur, Mote, Mole, Freckle, Speck, Stain, Soil”—would be erased.”

From this vantage point, the young man’s perfect, indescribable beauty is as subversive as it gets (if not outright blasphemous), especially because his inner goodness (the beauty of thy mind) is often questioned, in sonnet 69 as in many others. There is something no less subversive — and, in some strange way, fascinating — in the idea that today’s Botox parlours, along with the whole industry of commercialised beauty standards and artificial eternal youthfulness, are deeply rooted in medieval Christianity: what they sell, indeed, is nothing short of earthly resurrection.

As a painter, I was particularly struck by the idea of “congenital defect of vision”, which — apparently — prevents us from seeing “with clear eyes” that there is no beauty in this world. What is it that makes us blind to one another’s ugliness? The answer, though, has nothing to do with painting. It was given long ago (Greenblatt quotes Lucretius and Shakespeare on this, but they are certainly not alone): it’s love that makes us blind, and it’s the one we love that we see as most beautiful.

But the effect is broader than the concept of romantic love suggests, because one doesn’t see everyone else as ugly either, at least not always. We see everything through the mind’s eye, and there are moods that make one see inherent ugliness everywhere, but there are also states of mind which make everything and everyone beautiful. And this — quite unexpectedly — leads me to an absurdly optimistic conclusion that the humankind is more capable of love than we generally give ourselves credit for — insofar as we don’t see this ugliness in everyone the Reverend Dr. Mark Frank talks about. What he sees as our congenital blindness is, by this reckoning, just our inborn love and compassion for one another.   

The question remains, of course, whose eyes are “clear” (or at least clearer): the eyes of someone who loves, or the cold eyes of someone perfectly indifferent? The eyes (and mind) of someone who sees beauty or the eyes of someone who sees ugliness? This is, to me, but one version of the eternal question of whether we say “yes” or “no” to life — and, frankly, I am all for “yes-saying” (as, I believe, is Shakespeare, most of the time), which means — doesn’t it? — that love clears our vision rather than blinds us.

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Painting sonnet 42: On metaphors of love and the pain of betrayal

Lena Levin. Sonnet 42: A loss in love. 20"x20". 2013-2014.
Lena Levin. Sonnet 42: A loss in love. 20″x20″. 2013-2014. Click the image to see the painting in its context.

Have you ever wondered, what is language and where it is? It’s in your brain, but it is also in other people’s brains — the same “thing” residing in millions of brains, and easily occupying newly born ones. And you don’t even have conscious access to it: there may be some varying level of conscious control about what one wants to say, but the how of it — both in speaking and in understanding what others say — is supplied from outside the realm of consciousness. The science of linguistics has spent decades in trying to formalise our hidden “knowledge” of language, to make it accessible to conscious rational minds at least potentially — but so far, it has proved to be impossible. And the most troubling aspect of it is that language is not just a means of communication, it is also an essential instrument of thinking, a covert shaper of our understanding of the world.

Poetry is a very special kind of relationship between the human mind and its language, and poets have, for all I know, a very different type of access to language from the rest of us (or maybe language has a different type of access to them). But in this sonnet, I believe, something still more special is happening: the speaker tries to free his thoughts and emotions from the constraints of language. Shakespeare is wrestling with his Language — just like in the story of Jacob wrestling with his God in Genesis 32:21-33. And in doing so, he shows the reader the power language has over her own mind.    

[line]

[accordion_item title=”Read Shakespeare’s sonnet 42“]That thou hast her, it is not all my grief,
And yet it may be said I loved her dearly;
That she hath thee, is of my wailing chief,
A loss in love that touches me more nearly.

Loving offenders, thus I will excuse ye:
Thou dost love her, because thou knowst I love her;
And for my sake even so doth she abuse me,
Suffering my friend for my sake to approve her.

If I lose thee, my loss is my love’s gain,
And losing her, my friend hath found that loss;
Both find each other, and I lose both twain,
And both for my sake lay on me this cross:

But here’s the joy; my friend and I are one;
Sweet flattery! then she loves but me alone.

[/accordion_item]

[line]

On the surface, this sonnet sounds like a feeble attempt to talk oneself out of a painful situation: My lover and my friend are having an affair, and this hurts badly — so I try to find an explanation for this ultimate betrayal, an explanation which would safeguard my belief in their love for me and thus ease the pain.

Modern psychology tells us that we all make up such “narrative painkillers” for ourselves all the time, creating self-serving stories of our lives in which the story-teller, our conscious self, is the major protagonist. Here, the reader may suspect that the affair has nothing to do with the speaker — in this love triangle, he is the forgotten apex. But his self-story transforms the triangle into a cross, putting himself into the centre of the whole situation:

Loving offenders, thus I will excuse ye:
Thou dost love her, because thou knowst I love her;
And for my sake even so doth she abuse me,
Suffering my friend for my sake to approve her.

But consciousness is a liar, and its stories are incomplete at best, and often amount to self-deceit. One is usually unaware of it (otherwise, the self-deceit wouldn’t have worked), but not here. The sonnet is spoken as though by two “selves”: the one who is trying to deceive himself, and the one who is witnessing the deception. The speaker is aware of self-serving nature and weakness of his own story: it’s all empty words, sweet yet ineffectual flattery against this cross of two betrayals, a vaguely blasphemous image of unbearable pain. In this visually deserted sonnet, the cross is falling on me, like the naked truth breaking through the veil of empty lies.

The sonnet suggests, and not very subtly, this “self-deceit” interpretation: the first quatrain reads as a forthright statement of facts, and what follows is framed as excuses and sweet flattery. Frankly, the idea that two people who are betraying you with one another do so out of love and for your own good is as a preposterous example of self-deceit as any, and the reader might enjoy a fleeting delusion of “seeing through” Shakespeare’s feeble defences: surely, none of us would ever console ourselves with something that absurd.

But why is it that the first quatrain reads as an “objective truth”? One can think of many reasons, but there is one that, I believe, is harder to notice than others: it is written completely within the “love-as-ownership” metaphor, and ownership is all about “hard, objective facts”. This metaphor is pervasive in the English language, and it makes it appearance elsewhere in the sonnet, too (in the use of words like loss and gain, and even in the pronoun my), but nowhere as blatantly as in the first quatrain. And metaphors shape our thoughts and, through them, our emotions, whether we want it or not. With this in mind, this sonnet reads as the poet’s battle against the “love-as-ownership” metaphor governing his view of the situation and his feelings.

What I first viewed as making up a self-soothing story is now revealed as an attempt to replace the “love-as-ownership” with understanding love as co-feeling. But it doesn’t quite work: by the end of the third quatrain, the pain is still there, more vicious, it seems, than ever. It’s exactly when the speaker invokes compassion (If I lose thee, my loss is my love’s gain), that the cross, this striking image of his pain (and the sole image of the sonnet) pierces the veil of words. It’s as though his pain tells him: whatever words you try, I am still here within, ready to destroy you. If love is compassion, the pain would seem to be unjustified: it is not validated by love anymore. This is, I believe, why the pain strikes back at the speaker at this point: its inner truth would not be denied.

The thing is, metaphors have the power to shape our minds even if one doesn’t consciously believe in their content. I, for one, loathe the idea of love as ownership, but my mind accepted the first quatrain of this sonnet as an objective description of reality without a moment’s hesitation, simply because this metaphor is more deeply embedded in the language than its alternatives. And so it is with the speaker of the sonnet: he knows that this metaphor is the source of his pain, but consciously replacing it with compassion doesn’t quite help, because it sits deeper, in the very core of the language. And the language strikes back at its poet with the pain-as-cross metaphor invoked by his attempt to move away from love-as-ownership, towards higher, self-sacrificing understanding of love.

So, is Shakespeare defeated by his language? Not quite. He turns the tables in the couplet, with the love-as-unity metaphor (my friend and I are one). For a brief moment, the unity metaphor dissolves not only the nightmare of love-as-ownership, but also another, more fundamental linguistic constraint on his feelings, the strict “I – Thou – Other” structure it imposes on our interactions with the world.

The speaker has to choose his thou from the onset, in the first quatrain: he could have addressed his lover (rather than his friend) as “thou”, but what he absolutely cannot do is have two “thou”s at the same time. Not that he doesn’t try: the second quatrain is an attempt to do exactly that: Loving offenders, thus I will excuse ye, pulls both of them into the domain of “second person”, the addressees of the sonnet. Together, they can be ye, and yet they cannot both be thou. The language completely blocks us from maintaining several distinct thou-relationships at the same time, and the speaker’s futile attempt to have two of them promptly leads him to lose his thou altogether. From now on, both the friend and the lover are “third persons” (the plot of the sonnet in a nutshell), until the unity metaphor is introduced in the couplet and pulls the friend into the domain of “I”.

But the unity metaphor cannot really replace the love-as-ownership metaphor in the fabric of language, because language is all about drawing distinctions, not about recognising unity. Nor can the human mind dwell in this high place for too long: the distinction between “I” and “other” inevitably reappears, and turns love-as-unity into sweet flattery: then she loves but me alone… This me alone is the final paradox, the unresolved battle between poetry and language: syntactically, it’s a part of the “sweet flattery” (she loves only me), but it’s also the last chord of the sonnet, resonating in the reader’s mind long after the sonnet is over: remaining alone.

Even though I’ve known about the power of metaphors for a long time, I’ve never realised it so fully and viscerally as in painting of this sonnet. This clash between my belief about how I experience love, and the ease with which my mind swallows the love-as-ownership metaphor as a “fact” revealed rather painfully how little I know myself, and what a powerless slave of language I am.

Lena Levin. Sonnet 42: the 2013 version
Lena Levin. Sonnet 42: the 2013 version

At another level, the sonnet added something essential to my understanding of my own relationship with colour, something I am not ready to put into words yet (if ever). The painting of it turned into a battle with colour; the first version, of 2013, was nearly black-and-white, but I had to return to the painting more than a year later. Or maybe it’s the colour that had to return to it, and I just did what Rilke thought is the right thing for a painter to do, and let the colours settle the matter between themselves.

It is incredibly tempting to see this battle with colour as the painting counterpart of Shakespeare’s battle with language, but, I feel, it would be too superficial, too easy (let alone being, obviously, way too self-flattering) to give in to this temptation—in short, it would be a falsehood. I don’t (yet) have a complete understanding of what has happened here, so I will have, in Rilke’s words, to live the question.

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Julian Jaynes and William Shakespeare on the origin of consciousness in the breakdown of bicameral mind

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action…

William Shakespeare. Hamlet

According to Julian Jaynes, consciousness as we know it — this illusion of the inner world, where one does one’s introspecting, thinking, imagining, remembering, dreaming, planning, talking with oneself — depends on language and its metaphor-generating abilities. This particular mental set-up, which we tend to take as a biologically determined reality, could arise only at a certain stage of language evolution, and, it turns out, at a rather late one.       

Giotto. Legend of St. Francis
Giotto. Legend of St. Francis

If, as Jaynes proposes, we take the earliest texts of our civilisation as psychologically valid evidence, we begin to see a completely different mentality. In novel and stressful situations, when the power of habit doesn’t determine our actions, we rely on conscious thinking to decide what to do, but, for example, the heroes of Iliad used to receive their instructions from gods — which would appear in the times of uncertainty and stress.

This is what Jaynes calls “bicameral mind”: one part of the brain (the “god” part) evaluates the situation and issues commands to the other part (the “man” part) in the form of auditory and, occasionally, visual hallucinations (Jaynes’ hypothesises that the god part must have been located in the right hemisphere, and the man part, in the left hemisphere of the brain). The specific shapes and “identities” of these hallucinations depend on the culture, on what Jaynes calls “collective cognitive imperative”: we see what we are taught to see, what our learned worldview tells us must be there.     

The bicameral mind, and the corresponding systems of social organisation, began to break down about three millennia ago. Jaynes quotes remaining texts from the end of second millennium BC from Mesopotamia, where it must have started:

My god has forsaken me and disappeared,
My goddess has failed me and keeps at a distance.
The good angel who walked beside me has departed.

And even this, which might be viewed as evidence of brain processes involved:

One who has no god, as he walks along the street,
Headache envelops him like a garment.

Mikhail Vrubel. Six-winged Seraph (Azrail). 1904
Mikhail Vrubel. Six-winged Seraph (Azrail). 1904. Oil on canvas. 131 x 155 cm.

Perhaps stressful situations became too complex and novel for the “god part” of the brain to deal with successfully, or the language evolution was reshaping human minds and brains — but gods left this world, which is to say, their commanding voices ceased to be heard, albeit gradually and — even now — not completely. Although consciousness verbal thinking about novel situations, rationalising one’s behaviour, willing oneself into action — had to replace gods as a decision-making mental mechanism, there are vestiges of the earlier bicameral mentality in a variety of “abnormal” phenomena nowadays, from schizophrenia to children’s “imaginary friends” to hypnosis to “spirit possession” in more traditional cultures.

And in ghost sightings, of course — which brings us to Hamlet, whose most famous soliloquy is quoted as the epigraph to this post. Let’s return to this part of the soliloquy:

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.

What is Hamlet talking about? He begins the soliloquy with a contemplation of suicide, but this is evidently about something else, something more general — one would hardly call suicide an enterprise of great pith and moment.

There is a word here which can easily mislead a modern reader, because it has undergone a significant semantic transformation in the intervening four hundred years — conscience. In the modern language, it refers to an inner sense of right and wrong — but this meaning doesn’t really fit here: if this conscience stops us from doing something, it’s not cowardice, but rather moral strength and courage. But here is how conscience is defined in “Shakespeare’s words”, a glossary of Shakespeare’s language compiled by David Crystal and Ben Crystal:

  1. Internal reflection, inner voice, inmost thought (Cymbeline, I.viii.116 from my mutest conscience to my thought)
  2. Real knowledge, internal conviction, true understanding (3 Henry VI, I.i.150 My conscience tells me he is lawful king).
  3. Sense of indebtedness, feeling of obligation (Twelfth Night III.iii.17 were my worth, as is my conscience, firm, You should find better dealing)

We see that semantic scope of conscience in Shakespeare’s language is notably broader than in the modern English; it comprises all kinds of inner voices, introspections, convictions, awareness and, in particular, that which we would now call consciousness — a word that didn’t exist in Shakespeare’s English: consciousness (in contrast to conscience) was invented by John Locke almost a century later, in his attempt to understand “human understanding”.

Edouard Manet. Faure as Hamlet.
Edouard Manet. Faure as Hamlet. 1877. Oil on canvas. 196 x 131 cm.

Once consciousness (as a word) came into being, conscience — which was inherited from Ancient Greece via Latin — gradually narrowed its meaning to its modern moral sense. But this hasn’t yet happened for Shakespeare (and for Hamlet). Hamlet abandons the idea of suicide not because his moral sense of right and wrong (which must have been, for all we know, supported by his religious beliefs) tells him that it would be wrong. He abandons it because he contemplates its possible consequences, and finds that he doesn’t have enough information to take such an irrevocable action (there is the rub…). And then To be or not to be turns from a contemplation on suicide to a reflection on the conscious mind’s attempts to make high-consequence decisions without sufficient information. Death, in this context, is but the ultimate expression of both high consequences and lack of knowledge — the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns.

 Conscience here, then, stands not for “conscience” as we know it, but rather for conscious thinking as a decision-making tool: consciousness as the modern instrument for making up one’s mind. And the whole play turns out to be about a clash of two mental paradigms, two different mentalities: the bicameral mind and the conscious mind.

The bicameral mind is represented, of course, by the ghost. For Shakespeare and his contemporaries, ghosts weren’t quite as exotic and abnormal phenomenon as they are now; they belonged to what one might call the “collective cognitive imperative” associated with the Catholic faith, which had just recently been banished in England. As Stephen Greenblatt describes in “Hamlet in Purgatory”, ghost sightings used to be common enough, so there was an established procedure for distinguishing between “honest ghosts” (souls from Purgatory) and hallucinations or demonic apparitions (the procedure Horatio tries to follow during his first encounter with the ghost). Since Reformation had abolished Purgatory, ghosts were losing their church-sanctioned place in the collective cognitive imperative, and ghost sightings became less frequent (although never disappeared completely). This is the historical and cultural context of staging the ghost in “Hamlet”.     

Presumably, a bicameral man would have followed the ghost’s command without questioning, just like the heroes of Iliad followed the commands of their gods. But Hamlet is not an ancient hero, he is a conscious man; he doesn’t act, he thinks. Consciousness interferes between the ghost’s command and the man’s action — and thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.  

Surprisingly, many people — Shakespearean scholars, directors, psychologists, just readers — find it puzzling, and even occasionally frustrating, that Hamlet cannot make up his mind to kill his uncle. Just recently, I’ve taken an online course on Hamlet, and was struck by this once again — both in the course materials and on discussion boards. Wouldn’t anyone in their right mind pause to think before springing into action if they see a ghost who commands them to kill someone? It would seem that, in our modern world, someone who tries to follow such questionable commands would have been diagnosed with schizophrenia (or some other mental illness). And yet, people keep looking for an “explanation” for Hamlet’s unwillingness to act (like Freud, for example, who found it necessary to invoke the Oedipal complex to explain why Hamlet cannot kill his uncle — the theory enacted in Laurence Olivier’s version of Hamlet).

I’ve come up with my own explanation for this puzzling reaction to “Hamlet”. In Hamlet, we are directly confronted with something the modern science only began to discover and address in the second half of the last century, and which makes us distinctly uncomfortable: although consciousness presents itself as a decision-making mechanism, it actually isn’t. We perceive consciousness as the initiator of our actions, but it’s an illusion — just as commanding gods of yore used to be. It is as hard to let go of this illusion as it is to see the blind spot, or — I would guess — just as it is hard to someone experiencing auditory hallucinations as the voices of gods to stop hearing them or to disobey them.

I still remember the shock I experienced when I first read about the  fraudulent nature of consciousness in Tor Nørretranders’ book “The User Illusion: cutting consciousness down to size”, but this shock was accompanied by a palpable feeling that I (or some part of me) knew it, even if non quite consciously. It would seem that Shakespeare uncovered this “user illusion” long before even the word for consciousness appeared in the English language. “Hamlet”, just like Hamlet himself instructs his players, hold(s), as ’twere, the mirror up to natureHamlet tries to use his consciousness to decide what to do and to will himself into action, and fails, because consciousness is good at preventing us from action, but not at initiating an action. This mirror is as revealing and unflattering now as it was then (if not more so), because it’s not just about Hamlet: it’s about our consciousness, too.         

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On the first performance of “Hamlet”

[content_band inner_container=”true” padding_top=”0px” padding_bottom=”10px” border=”all” bg_color=”#efefef”]This is an accidental post: a writing assignment for the course on “Hamlet” on FutureLearn.com I am taking (by the way, it’s a great place to learn). The assignment is to pretend to be an Elizabethan who has just been to see Shakespeare’s Hamlet for the first time ever. They asked to write as a blog post, and I decided the topic is quite fitting for my “Studio Journal”, especially because I just saw the old BBC production with Derek Jacobi… [/content_band]

I’ve been meaning to write down my thoughts on a new production of Hamlet — I saw it yesterday — but the only thought that’s floating in my head right now is that I couldn’t be more thoroughly confused.

The public — me included — seemed to expect a remake of Kyd’s Hamlet we remember from a few years back: an honest revenge play. We should have known better: one can always trust Shakespeare to introduce confusion, and befuddlement, and a heap of questions instead of answers and straightforward action.

It’s not that there is no action at all: everyone dies by and by; but — at first at least — most of its happens off-stage and to wrong people (the main villain is also killed eventually, but not before he has managed to bring about the deaths of almost everyone else, Hamlet included).

But otherwise — I felt as though we are witnessing not what is actually happening, but what’s going on in Hamlet’s head (interchanging madness and reason, without any warnings). First of all — what is this Ghost? Is he real or is he an illusion? The soldiers and Horatio see it, too — but then, why doesn’t the queen, in a later scene?

And where does it come from? From what he says it seems like he resides in Purgatory (“for a certain term”, if I remember correctly) — but don’t we, in our enlightened age, already know that Purgatory is a vile invention of Papists? What might Shakespeare possibly mean with this? And then Hamlet talks of death as of a country from whose bourn no traveller returns — and yet he seems to take the Ghost quite seriously (if not without some mistrust — quite justifiable, by the way, if you ask me).

Is Hamlet mad? He himself seems to think that he just “puts it on”, that he is “mad in craft”… But isn’t “putting it on” madness in itself — all it seems to do is to arouse the king’s suspicions, so Hamlet is constantly being watched — not the best way to accomplish his revenge, if that’s what he has in mind. It looked to me as though he has just found a pretext (for himself, if for nobody else) to let his inward storm of madness out — I know firsthand how tempting it might be when the whole world seems to crumble around you.

Why doesn’t he kill his uncle right after the play, when he is finally sure that the Ghost was telling the truth? Does he really believe that a murderer and a villain will go to Heaven? Or is he just more interested in having his say with his mother? Or maybe he just doesn’t like to kill (no wonder here)?

As I said, I am befuddled. All these questions just keep boiling in my head, as though I have become a bit of a Hamlet myself…