Marginal

On The Tempest. Baldwin says something very similar to what Langbaum says in one of my post’s epigraphs, but from a broader perspective.

Langbaum: “. . . romance deals in marvelous events and solves its problems through metamorphoses and recognition scenes – through, in other words, transformations of perception.”

Baldwin wouldn’t disagree, I don’t think, but he sees “metamorphoses and recognition” as inherent in theater, not just in romance. The “tension between the real and the imagined is the theater,” Baldwin says, “and this is why the theater will always remain a necessity. One is not in the presence of shadows [as at the cinema], but responding to one’s flesh and blood; in the theater, we are recreating each other . . . we are all each other’s flesh and blood.”

Baldwin got converted as a young teen, he suggests, to escape Macbeth and the flesh and blood of theater: “Macbeth was a nigger, just like me, and I saw the witches in church, every Sunday, and all up and down the block, all week long, and Banquo’s face was a familiar face. At the same time, the majesty and torment on that stage were real . . .”

Baldwin was a playwright as well as a novelist and essayist. My quotes are from Baldwin’s No Name in the Street, the fourth book of his essays I’ve read this year.

The Tempest

The reason that it is important – of the utmost importance – for white people, here, to see the Negroes as people like themselves is that white people will not, otherwise, be able to see themselves as they are.

 – James Baldwin, from Nobody Knows My Name

. . . romance deals in marvelous events and solves its problems through metamorphoses and recognition scenes – through, in other words, transformations of perception.

 – Robert Langbaum, from his introduction to the Signet Classic edition of The Tempest

 

3PictureBookTempestThe island’s sand is bright white. Its lone palm is curved, like the line to a high kite. The storm clouds clear, and Ariel drifts down, bound to what the Washington Post calls “an amusingly thick rope.” She seems to miss her runway. She passes Prospero, but she delivers her lines, anyway, as, upside down, she reaches for the oncoming palm. She sounds dutiful and put out.

Will tomorrow’s show be the same, or is the actress making the most of tonight’s haywire high wire? Either way, I reflect, it’s Ariel: she wants to please Prospero because she wants her freedom. She’ll disorient every castaway, and also maybe herself, to leave.

We walk later the high, black catwalk from which Ariel was suspended. Beneath the stage, we touch the forbidden fruit on the banquet table that an hour before fell through a trap door.

But real magic pervades the wig room. Bethany and I are startled to see, on a black mannequin, fair Miranda’s hair. Our friend, who is showing us the ropes backstage, designs the wigs and costumes. She is visibly pleased. I’ve done my job well, then, she says.

Beforehand, I walk upstage in a parking garage. I’m a level below the lowest level with elevator service. An anxious Capitals fan behind me in an SUV drove me to this hell. I wanted to insinuate my car into a narrow spot a few levels up, but I didn’t want to hear more honking.

Outside it’s cold, and a man, covered in a surplus blanket or coat, sleeps against the garage. I’ve no sense of direction, and I’ve dropped Bethany, who has, off at the theater before parking. I’m disoriented. He could be dead. Then a guy comes out of the night as if he were the night coalescing.

He has a badge on a lanyard, just like the college kids that come to my door summertime in the suburbs. Except he’s around fifty, around my age, or he says he is, but I don’t believe him at first. He says he remembers the riots here after they shot King. He was five years old then. His dark dreadlocks fall behind him down somewhere near the dark street. They pull at the wrinkles on his forehead and make his eyes big and sweet.

Continue reading

Slow reading on a Kindle

3PictureMarja-Leena-Rathje-paperwhites2014I live out essentially two notions of slow reading. One focuses meditatively over a verse’s or small passage’s phrasing. The other digs into an entire book through marginalia and multiple reads. One is meditation and the other is study, though, happily, the lines blur.

Over the past seven months, I’ve tried both kinds of close reading on the latest Kindle Paperwhite. Each morning I’m reading a psalm, or part of a psalm, depending on its length and how things are going, from an unfamiliar translation.  I’ve also tried to wear out two larger Kindle books. In the process, I typed 178 margin notes in one Kindle book and 452 margin notes in the other. (I love marginalia: my best writing is in my margin notes.) This post reflects on my experience of close reading these three texts on the Kindle.

By the way, the psalms translation is Robert Alter’s The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary. The first of the two larger books is Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History, and the second is Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies.

While I was reading Niebuhr’s book on my Kindle, I was also alternately “reading” it by listening to an unabridged recording of it on my phone’s Audible app. I’d stop this performance on occasion to record notes, and a transcribed version of my recorded notes would collect along with my typed margin notes when the phone’s app synced.

I wasn’t reading these books just to test the Kindle, of course. But I was curious, as I went along, to see how close reading on a Kindle stacked up against close reading a physical book. I also wondered what a well-lived-in Kindle book would feel like. Here’s what I’ve discovered in terms of both function and feel.

1. Typing margin notes on a Kindle is slow, but that’s not all bad. More ideas sometimes occurred to me as I used a single finger to press the tiny keys at the bottom of my Kindle. In a way it was more tactile than writing notes with a pen in a paper book. I found that I reflected more on what I was writing.

2. With 452 margin notes in Open Society, I need a way to search them. The search function on the Kindle and on the computer’s Kindle app doesn’t search my marginalia; it searches only the book’s text. To search my notes, I log into kindle.amazon.com on my laptop and click “Your Highlights.”

3. The “Your Highlights” page produces my few thousand notes on a single, slowly loading page. To search the page, I type Command-F, as I’d type to find something on any web page. Amazon hasn’t developed a serious research tool for Kindle yet, though any search function beats searching for marginalia in paper books, of course. Continue reading

Bad writing instruction: the first-paragraph thesis

3PictureBookNewkirkSchoolManifestoHere’s a worthy little book to get you caught up on the sorry state of school essay instruction. I got The School Essay Manifesto: Reclaiming the Essay for Students and Teachers to find out some better ways to write first drafts before shaping them into literary analysis essays. Thomas Newkirk, the author, does describe three excellent methods for writing essays, and two of them involve close readings of texts. But I was pleased to discover that his essays weren’t only the first drafts. They were the subsequent drafts, too, and the finished products.

Newkirk starts off arguing against the mind-numbing structure of the first-paragraph thesis and the five-paragraph essay. But he ends up suggesting that the literary analysis essay itself should lose its prominent place in American high schools. In this respect, his book tracks the development of my argument in “The Tyranny of the Secondary School,” a post I wrote seven years ago.

I’m surprised that Newkirk, a University of New Hampshire English professor and one of these writers-workshop-for-grade-schools Heinemann Books authors, didn’t turn in a more erudite performance. I often think that, because the literary analysis essay came from the universities over a hundred years ago, our deliverance from it will come from there, too. (And, in fact, some colleges are beginning to show more interest in nonfiction texts and rhetoric and less interest in literary analysis.) Don’t get me wrong: he argues well. But Newkirk, who also taught at-risk high school students in Boston, mostly talks like one of us high school teachers. And that gives me hope: maybe we English teachers, despite everything, can really rid ourselves of some of these major impediments to good writing instruction.

Newkirk’s means of persuasion aside, all three of his essay ideas are worth the price of this slim volume.

In This Place: Tom Montag’s spare, sweeping retrospective

3PictureBookMontagInThisPlaceA week before I visited the National Gallery’s new Andrew Wyeth retrospective, I had gotten my hands on Tom Montag’s new In This Place: Selected Poems 1982 – 2013. In This Place is a retrospective of sorts, too, though by a man who is sometimes called a “minor regional poet.” Montag’s regionalism, though, is like Wyeth’s – a particular window on human conditions and feelings. I thought of Montag’s poetry often while walking through the show.

Andrew Wyeth: Looking Out, Looking In concentrates on Wyeth’s windows, and most of the show’s studies and paintings are of windows from only two houses, the Kuerner Farm in Pennsylvania and the Olson House in Maine. The inexhaustible subject matter Wyeth finds in two houses reminded me of the cover photograph of In This Place: the front of “the big red house” where Montag and his wife Mary have lived for upwards of forty years in their Wisconsin farming village. Like Wyeth, Montag finds unlimited inspiration from a handful of things within a fixed geographic radius. He has written over a thousand pages of observations, for instance, for his blog, The Middlewesterner, just from things he observed during his daily drives to and from work.

Five years after Wyeth’s death, the NGA show asks, have we begun to see beyond his realism and beyond his insistence on a limited, regional subject matter? Part of the narrative of Wyeth’s show is the universalism in his regionalism as well as the renewed critical appreciation for the “detachment and nonbeing” undergirding Wyeth’s realism, as Charles Brock puts it his essay “Through a Glass: Windows in the Art of Wyeth, Sheeler, and Hopper” appearing in the show’s catalog (66). I hope In This Place generates a similar appreciation for the universalism and detachment in the corpus of Montag’s poetry.

The partly negative connotation of “regional” persists, of course, and Wyeth would have sympathized with Montag becoming known as a regional poet. In her essay “Wind from the Sea: Painting Truth beneath the Facts,” also published in the show’s catalog, Nancy K. Anderson quotes Wyeth as saying, “People like to say Robert Frost is a bucolic poet. Just as people say I’m a painter of rustic scenes – that has nothing to do with it!” (26). Wyeth and Frost were great artists, Anderson contends, not because they were regionalists, though they were, but because they effectively used the natural world to suggest significant feelings and thoughts that moved their audiences. Explaining the name of the Wyeth retrospective, Anderson writes that, as “a keen observer of the natural world, [Frost, like Wyeth,] used exterior prompts for interior purposes – looking out triggered looking in.” The same is true of Montag. Continue reading

The winter in winter

The snow is almost gone, a lot of it eaten by a neighborhood dog but most of it melted by still-below-average temperatures. Winter returned three times in March, each time with a few inches of snow. Sixty-two inches this winter — a lot for Virginia, even for its northernmost corner where we live. Four inches of snow this past Monday, but I rode my bike for an hour and a half Friday. Winter, that symbol of life’s final stages, may be in its own final stage. Some final flurries are expected here tonight, but I might mistake them for moths.

“Death, thou shalt die.” My tenth graders are busy emulating conceits such as John Donne’s by writing their own Metaphysical poetry. Some of their poems examine life’s common paradoxes well. My students’ relative success makes me wonder if there’s room for Metaphysical poetry’s drama, argumentation, idealism, and tough artificiality today. Eliot learned a good deal from these poets. And many modern poets have been (maybe unknowingly) returning to their concision, uneven meter, and irony for decades.

I keep returning to my best posts. WordPress tells me that I’ve revised “Ice, hail, & the reign thereafter” sixty times and “Jesus teaches the compare & contrast essay” sixty-five times. Neither post is even more than two months old. But all that refining is when I do my best writing, maybe because my imaginary reader is the most present with me, threatening to read a flawed version I posted in my haste. I almost wish my feed wouldn’t feed until a post’s fiftieth revision.

But my revising is also a working out of my ideas — well, more of a working in. After fifty drafts, even if it doesn’t seem like it to my reader, my post’s theory gets personal. “Ice” is teaching me that I’m never going to be fulfilled in this life. In fact, my faith teaches me that I wasn’t designed to be. “Compare & contrast” is teaching me that my passivity isn’t often very spiritual. In fact, it’s passive aggression towards the Father I never had.

“Compare & contrast,” then, is teaching me that I’ve buried my talent for too long.

The trick for me is to live in the still-inchoate paradox birthed from these two posts’ relationship.

No two snowflakes are alike, but I’ve seen identical snowflakes. This seeming paradox is easily resolved: if winter can return after three years away, then maybe snowflakes can, too. Maybe I’ll see an old friend tonight.

Or maybe that’s just a conceit. Heraclitus’s famous adage: “You cannot step into the same river twice.” I’m slowly reading twentieth-century Austrian philosopher Karl Popper’s political masterpiece, The Open Society and Its Enemies. It’ll be winter again before I’m done. Popper thinks Plato hated Heraclitus but nevertheless believed him and wrote The Republic in reaction to him. We must stop change, Plato believed. Poets lead the people astray, Plato said. It all adds up, and I’m with Popper so far: Plato was a brilliant and dangerous reactionary.

One’s politics is based on two things: how one understands the river, and to what extent and by what means others should be made to understand the river the same way.

Theodore Roosevelt, for his part, understood politics in kaleidoscopic terms: all the fragments — the people, the politicians, the ideas — had to fall into alignment to get things done. To me, poetry readings are a twist of the kaleidoscope. Different people read the same poem different ways, emphasizing and, with their inflections and pacing, seemingly rearranging certain of the poem’s pieces. The resulting patterns are sometimes striking. Voice Alpha recently asked its readers to perform Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem “The Windhover.” Nic Sebastian, Voice Alpha’s curator, collected fourteen readings, including my own. Some of them taught me new ways to return to and engage with a very old friend.

3PictureBrokenStainedGlassRandyCalderone

Above: “Broken Stained Glass — Philadelphia, Pennsylvania” by Randy Calderone. Used by permission. I took the above Vine video in our neighborhood earlier this March.

Teju Cole’s spacious & taut new release

3PictureBookColeEveryDayTeju Cole was in Washington Tuesday when his novel Every Day Is for the Thief made its American release. I bought a copy that evening at Politics and Prose, where I heard him read from Thief and from Open City, his later novel, which was released stateside in 2011.

I’ve read Open City, one of my favorite novels, twice. But Thief is proving to be the rare novel I feel I can live in. Its vignettes and language are as spacious and taut as a well-staked tent. Oh! To write like this:

In December, dust drowns the city. But one Friday morning in the third week of the month, it rains heavily for only the second time in the dry season. It is a relief. It makes the roads torturous. Where there were shallow depressions, lakes suddenly appear. Rivulets rage along the roads. The rain falls for an intense half hour just after I head out. On Allen Avenue, through the gray scrim of the rolled-up windows, I see a swarm of lime-green shirts and yellow trousers, lime-green blouses, and yellow skirts: students caught in the rain, racing for shelter. These teenagers, thrilled by the weather and by the excitement of running together, are laughing, but are inaudible through the heavy rain drumming on the car roof. I drive slowly through this dream of hurrying bodies.

How to characterize the paragraph? Nothing overheated. Unobtrusive alliteration beginning with the paragraph’s first four words and puddling here, there, and now assonance: “Allen Avenue.”  The first sentence’s soft chiasmus is alliterative at 1, 2, and 4, reminding me of Sir Gawain and early English verse: “dust drowns . . . rains . . . dry.”

And the pacing. Breath units, which Joe Glasser defines as syllable counts between punctuation marks, well mixed at 4, 5, 13, 17, and then 5: “It is a relief” — syntactically and musically, too, a relief. An implied metaphor — “rage” — and another — “swarm.” Sparse, measured drams of metaphor’s strong stimulant. The whole effect makes space for a “dream of hurrying bodies” — just right, nothing purple. The clothing that makes the teens alike in age but separate in gender anticipates the next scene, his grown-up visit to his first, teenage love. (After the rain stops, Lagos is “becalmed and devastated,” just like the narrator, perhaps, by this visit’s end.)

The paragraph may have been inspired by the next page spread’s thoughtfully conflicted black-and-white photograph — running bodies in dark tops and light pants and skirts through a car window’s pimply raindrops.

Everything serves tone.

The structure’s as spare as the style. The varied vignettes, some focused more on Lagos, some focused more on the narrator, leave space for the reader to experience the tension between the seemingly objective view of the city and the rather fragmented, young narrator, who has returned there after many years in America. I like Cole’s choice to rely on style and suggestion instead of on detailed relationships and plot, the reflexive choice of many a lesser novelist. In this respect, Thief reminds me of the finest poetry. But the resemblance to poetry isn’t obvious. Make no mistake: this is lean, muscular prose.

(Here’s a thoughtful review of Every Day Is for the Thief published yesterday in the New York Times. And here’s Cole’s interview Tuesday on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show.)

Trompement: Making the grade

[This] is a criticism of the tendency to burden institutions, especially educational institutions, with the impossible task of selecting the best. This should never be made their task. This tendency transforms our educational system into a racecourse, and turns a course of studies into a hurdle-race. Instead of encouraging the student to devote himself to his studies for the sake of studying, instead of encouraging in him a real love for his subject and for inquiry, he is encouraged to study for the sake of his personal career; he is led to acquire only such knowledge as is serviceable in getting him over the hurdles which he must clear for the sake of his advancement.

Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies (Kindle Locations 2678-2683)

To teach literature as if it were some kind of urbane trade, of professional routine, is to do worse than teach badly. To teach it as if the critical text were more important, more profitable than the poem, as if the examination syllabus mattered more than the adventure of private discovery, of passionate digression, is worst of all.

George Steiner, Language and Silence (page 67)

And yet perhaps, after all, it is better for a country that its seats of learning should do more to suppress mental growth than to encourage it. Were it not for a certain priggishness which these places infuse into so great a number of their alumni, genuine work would become dangerously common. It is essential that by far the greater part of what is said or done in the world should be so ephemeral as to take itself away quickly; it should keep good for twenty-four hours, or even twice as long, but it should not be good enough a week hence to prevent people from going on to something else. No doubt the marvellous development of journalism in England, as also the fact that our seats of learning aim rather at fostering mediocrity than anything higher, is due to our subconscious recognition of the fact that it is even more necessary to check exuberance of mental development than to encourage it. There can be no doubt that this is what our academic bodies do, and they do it the more effectually because they do it only subconsciously. They think they are advancing healthy mental assimilation and digestion, whereas in reality they are little better than cancer in the stomach.

Samuel Butler, Erewhon (Collected Works of Samuel Butler, Kindle Locations 2953-2961)

3PicturePopperKarl

Above: Karl Popper

A goal of good lit crit: humanity

This post is from a letter I wrote a friend as part of correspondence we had in 2011 that touched on the purposes of literary criticism.

3PictureGeorgeSteinerOne of the things I love about [literary critic George] Steiner is how the development and state of language, and even the act of reading, are ultimately moral issues for him.  People who genuinely love Shakespeare can commit atrocities of twentieth century magnitude, he asserts.  So we have to be affected by what we read.  One of my favorite lines from one of the Language & Silence essays (“To Civilize our Gentlemen”):

In I. A. Richards’ Practical Criticism we find the following:

The question of belief or disbelief, in the intellectual sense, never arises when we are reading well.  If unfortunately it does arise, either through the poet’s fault or our own, we have for the moment ceased to be reading and have become astronomers, or theologians, or moralists, persons engaged in quite a different type of activity.

To which the answer should be: No, we have become men.

He sees a link between Calvinism and historicism (and positivism) in the field of literature that Harry Jaffa seems to intuit in the field of political science (and of course Steiner has lots to say about the relationship of literature and politics).  Calvinists and historicists (strange bedfellows . . .) don’t recognize what one might call a divine spark in human nature, and so projects such as self-government and even humanity (humane, human-ness) become impossible. (This is the irony of Calvinism, to me.)

3PictureBookSteinerLanguageSilenceSteiner seems to have struggled long and hard with his calling.  He is a critic who in some essays seems almost to apologize for his calling’s existence.  But that struggle, I think, won him a clearer notion of what a true critic does than I have yet read anywhere else.  (I celebrate his understanding of criticism, but I celebrate his own humanity even more, which gives me hope that my own struggle with the inconsistencies of writing and silence, while they may never make articulated sense, may transform something in me one day.)  He thinks good criticism can “show us what to reread, and how.”  (There are a lot of books out there; lots of first reads, even, to choose a second from among . . .)  “Secondly, criticism can connect.  In an age in which rapidity of technical communication in fact conceals obstinate ideological and political barriers, the critic can act as intermediary and custodian.”  And the third purpose makes a helpful distinction between a reviewer and a good critic:

There is a distinction between contemporary and immediate.  The immediate hounds the reviewer.  But, plainly, the critic has special responsibilities toward the art of his own age.  He must ask of it not only whether is represents a technical advance or refinement, whether it adds a twist of style or plays adroitly on the nerve of the moment, but what it contributes to or detracts from the dwindled reserves of moral intelligence.  What is the measure of man this work proposes?

And the final defense of lit crit in this same essay (“Humane Literacy” (1963)):

Because the community of traditional values is splintered, because words themselves have been twisted and cheapened, because the classic forms of statement and metaphor are yielding to complex, transitional modes, the art of reading, of true literacy, must be reconstituted.  It is the task of literary criticism to help us read as total human beings, by example of precision, fear, and delight.  Compared to the act of creation, that task is secondary.  But it has never counted more.  Without it, creation itself may fall upon silence.

I just want to stand up and shout.

I love what you say about practicing lit crit before embarrassing ourselves in public, and I think Steiner is with us there, too:

. . . what the critic hopes for is a qualified assent, a “Yes, but . . ” which will compel him to reexamine or refine his own response and lead to fruitful dialogue. . . .  No less than an artist — indeed, more so — the critic is in need of a public.  Without it the act of ideal reading, the attempt to re-create the work of art in the critical sensibility is doomed to becoming arbitrary impression or mere dictate.  There must exist or be trained within the community a body of readers seeking to achieve in vital concert a mature response to literature.  Only then can the critic work with that measure of consent which makes disagreement creative.  Language itself is the supreme act of community.  The poem has its particular existence in a “third realm,” at a complex, unstable distance between the poet’s private use of words and the shape of these same words in current speech.  To be realized critically the work of literature must find its complete reader; but that reader (the critic) can only quicken and verify his response if a comparable effort at insight is occurring somewhere around him.

(From his essay “F. R. Leavis.”) It reminds me of Calvino’s and Walter Ong’s thoughts on the reader’s essential role in creation.

Ice, hail, & the reign hereafter

For my blog’s tenth anniversary, a suitably long and slow post. The post combines my blog’s three favorite preoccupations: literary criticism, political theory, and spirituality. You’ve got another ten years to read it.

Thick ice this morning on our sidewalks and streets. The pines beside them shine and droop as if an angel had fallen and not the rain. No school. Today, for the first time, I would have started teaching Macbeth. Now I have another day to prepare.

3PictureIcedPine

So yesterday’s hereafter wasn’t today, after all; it’s tomorrow again. The witches’ greeting:

All hail Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter. (1.3.48)

The New Cambridge Edition points out that Shakespeare, in two other plays, associates “all hail” with Judas’ betrayal – his “Hail, rabbi” when he leads the soldiers to Jesus.1 Judas’s greeting is ironic, right? “Hail” in Middle English meant “healthy,” like our “hale.” (For “hail,” the OED quotes the early fifteenth century Wars of Alexander: “When on athyll was so wele in happe and in heyle.”) By King James’ day, “hail,” with a fading glow of good health, had become an interjection of greeting and sometimes of acclamation, as for a king.

And Judas kisses Jesus as a future king. Palestine’s Roman and Jewish leaders are concerned that Jesus’ movement is gaining a political expression, that “king of the Jews,” a claim Jesus never denies, means hereafter. The Magi prophesied that Jesus would be king hereafter. Pilate tacks “the king of the Jews” atop Jesus’ cross to establish irony. Jesus’ followers, however, find Pilate’s sign prophetic and therefore reflecting a deeper irony.

Pilate puts “hereafter” in this life, but Jesus puts “hereafter” in the life to come. Are they that far apart?

Christians argue about whether Jesus will rule on earth and whether, assuming he will, nature and mankind will be much as they are today. And is there anything Christians can to do help that prophecy along?

If chance will have me king, why chance may crown me
Without my stir. (1.3.142-3)

Macbeth understands in these early lines what Macbeth’s New Cambridge Edition editor A. R. Braunmuller terms “prophetic irony” – the suggestion inherent in prophecy that the one receiving the prophecy should act upon it, to go beyond what Saint Paul describes as prophecy’s purposes: to edify, exhort, and comfort.

Christian political actions focused on hastening or establishing Jesus’ reign, such as the Crusades, have ended in disaster. Yet removing religion from the equation hardly helps. Every ideology seems to have a heaven on earth. Just as paradise moved from hell to heaven with Jesus’ resurrection, so for all ideologies heaven moves to earth at the juncture of history and no-history, or, in the case of Marxist thought, at the juncture of prehistory and history.

Macbeth uses the word “hereafter” four times. Shortly after the witches use it to tell Macbeth when he’ll be king, Duncan, the then-current king, uses it to announce when he intends his son to be king:

. . . kinsmen, thanes,
And you whose places are the nearest, know:
We will establish our estate upon
Our eldest, Malcolm, whom we name hereafter
The Prince of Cumberland . . . (1.4.35-40)

Macbeth, among the thanes who hear the news, immediately takes his leave. He heads home, Haman-like, but is greeted by his wife much as he was greeted by the witches:

Great Glamis, worthy Cawdor,
Greater than both by the all-hail hereafter (1.5.52-53)

In Lady Macbeth’s greeting, as Braunmuller points out, “the phrase ‘all-hail’ is treated as an adjective, ‘hereafter’ as a noun.”2 “Hereafter” for Lady Macbeth is no longer an adverb that merely tells when something else will happen. “Hereafter” becomes, instead, a destination in its own right – a political destination at which, I suppose, all will be hail.

Is Lady Macbeth’s vision of a perfect political future – a kind of heaven on earth – peculiar only to some Christians and Marxists? Perhaps there are no new idealistic political movements under the sun. Paul Berman’s book Terror and Liberalism puts recent radical Islam in company with other anti-liberal political movements, both religious and secular, and points to, among many other similarities, their common vision of the hereafter:

The coming reign was always going to be pure – a society cleansed of its pollutants and abominations. It was going to be the purity of unexploited labor (for the Bolsheviks and Stalinists); or the purity of Roman grandeur (for the Fascists); or the purity of Catholic virtue (for the Phalange); or the biological purity of Aryan blood (for the Nazis). Yet no matter how these several components of the myth were labeled, the coming reign was always going to last a thousand years – that is, was going to be a perfect society, without any of the flaws, competition, or turmoil that make for change and evolution.3

The political hereafter, the heaven on earth, escapes history’s vicissitudes and untidiness. How can we resist such an allure? The hereafter is an ideal time, and we’re wired for ideals. There’s no escaping Plato – or, more precisely, what he represents: ideal forms. Inductive reasoning, for instance, is inescapable. It’s how we learn. An empiricist knows the sun came up yesterday and yesterday and yesterday. Any conclusion he draws about tomorrow makes him an unwilling Platonist. And, just as in Newton’s day, science today can’t go far without mathematics – that perfect language of the ideal – which was also Plato’s favorite language.

But to achieve a political hereafter, to end history in favor of an ideal state, eventually requires that we become something other than what we are: beings with an unfathomable center that makes integrity, or “one-ness,” possible on a personal but not a political level. By seeking a political one-ness, we divide ourselves from ourselves. Lady Macbeth calls off her own menstrual cycle (the “compunctious visitings of nature”) long enough for her and Macbeth to kill King Duncan:

. . . Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here
And fill me from the crown to the toe topfull
Of direst cruelty; make thick my blood,
Stop up th’access and passage to remorse
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose nor keep peace between
Th’effect and it. Come to my woman’s breasts
And take my milk for gall . . .  (1.5.38 – 46)

Her stifled cycle stopped the flow of blood to the king’s sons, too, as if from a kind of menstrual synchrony in this claustrophobic play. Macbeth announces King Duncan’s death to one of the king’s heirs, Donaldbain:

The spring, the head, the fountain of your blood
Is stopped, the very source of it is stopped.  (2.3.91 – 92)

Do we bleed just by being together? Is something as essential as blood our own, or is it something we share? Christian realism, Reinhold Niebuhr’s political philosophy, issues from such an uneasy tension between an individual and her society. Niebuhr’s individual can’t find fulfillment without her society, but she “also cannot find fulfillment completely within society.”4 An individual lives her life “in painful tension with even the best community,” but her life turns tragic when her society adopts some ideology to eliminate this incongruity. For Niebuhr, “the final wisdom of life requires, not the annulment of incongruity but the achievement of serenity within and above it.”5 But ideologies wish to annul the incongruity, want to solve more than they can.

The more society seeks to annul the incongruity, the more the individual doubles – the more she is tempted to lose her integrity, splitting into a public and a private person. Scotland under Macbeth, Ross reports, is “almost afraid to know itself” (4.3.167). Leading up to Duncan’s murder, Lady Macbeth counsels duplicity:

Your face, my thane, is as a book where men
May read strange matters. To beguile the time,
Look like the time, bear welcome in your eye,
Your hand, your tongue; look like th’innocent flower,
But be the serpent under’t. (1.5.60 – 64)

Most modern political ideologies seek to protect “the value and dignity of the individual,” but that dignity “is constantly threatened by the same culture which wants to guarantee it.”6  For Niebuhr, who wrote Irony in the middle of the Cold War, the threatening culture may be Communist or bourgeois capitalist, among other possibilities:

The Christian idea of the significance of each individual in God’s sight becomes, in bourgeois civilization, the concept of a discrete individual who makes himself the final end of his own existence. The Christian idea of providence is rejected for the heady notion that man is the master of his fate and the captain of his soul.7

In other words, ideologies are based on the individual as perhaps born of God but untimely ripped, like Macduff, with God dying while giving birth. Ideologies are based also on a notion of society as either bound by God’s prophecy or freed from God’s justice and mercy – in either case, as freed from his providence. Orphaned from God, the individual becomes her own end. Either freed from God or goaded by some notion of biblical prophecy, society is able to control – and in that sense, close – history as surely as its science is now able to control nature.

In tempting Macbeth to kill Duncan, the weird sisters tempt him to make an end of history, too. They anticipate and rip off Macbeth’s words in time (“So foul and fair a day I have not seen” – 1.3.36) and use and confuse them outside of time (“fair is foul, and foul is fair” – 1.1.11). As Braunmuller puts it, “regicide is necessarily an attack on time’s progression and duration.”8 After meeting the witches, Macbeth considers that killing King Duncan would be “the be-all and the end-all,” a “jump” from time to “the life to come”:

If th’assassination
Could trammel up the consequence and catch
With his surcease, success, that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all – here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’d jump the life to come. (1.7.1 – 7)

These lines show Braunmuller that Macbeth “first envisages, and then undertakes to create, a world in which acts have no consequences, no duration beyond the moment of their enactment, no reach in time and beyond time into eternity.”9 Responding to her husband’s letters, Lady Macbeth has a similar vision, though not as fully developed, in reaction to the witches’ prophecies:

Thy letters have transported me beyond
This ignorant present, and I feel now
The future in the instant. (1.5.54 – 56)

Niebuhr warned in his 1952 book The Irony of American History that America one day would be tempted as the Soviets to create a hereafter, to make such a “future in the instant”:

. . . our “technocratic” tendency to equate the mastery of nature with the mastery of history could tempt us to lose patience with  the tortuous course of history. We might be driven to hysteria by its inevitable frustrations. We might be tempted to bring the whole of modern history to a tragic conclusion by one final and mighty effort to overcome its frustrations. The political term for such an effort is “preventive war.” It is not an immediate temptation; but it could become so in the next decade or two.10

The Iraq War makes plain that Niebuhr was prescient. Niebuhr understood that America might be tempted to end history in the name of democracy or of Christ, just as the U.S.S.R. sought to end history for the benefit of a godless mankind.

When Macbeth’s preemptive strike against the king and his heir begins to unhinge him, Macbeth follows King Saul’s precedent and seeks out the witches. The witches’ first apparition warns Macbeth to “beware Macduff,” but the second apparition counters the first with what would later turn out to be doublespeak:

SECOND APPARITION
Be bloody, bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn
The power of man, for none of woman born
Shall harm Macbeth. Descends

MACBETH
Then live, Macduff, what need I fear of thee?
But yet I’ll make assurance double sure
And take a bond of fate: thou shalt not live,
That I may tell pale-hearted fear it lies,
And sleep in spite of thunder. (4.1.77-85)

By now, Macbeth has long since dropped any notion of leaving chance to its work “without my stir.” The witches’ fresh prophesies in support of the “all-hail hereafter” tempt Macbeth “to take a bond of fate” – to plot Macduff’s murder. Macbeth doesn’t succeed in murdering Macduff, of course, but he does succeed in having Macduff’s wife and child murdered.

These prophecies also have made Macbeth believe he is invincible, almost immortal. Up until he learns from Macduff that he wasn’t born but “was from his mother’s womb / Untimely ripped,”11 Macbeth’s arrogance seems to increase with each scene.

Niebuhr believed that America’s millennialism might combine with its frustrations to cause it to act on its rising arrogance and to put an end to history. Where did America’s millennialism come from? Niebuhr pointed out that we harbor a Messianic sense of our destiny flowing from two sources. First, “the New England conception of our virtue,” which began “as the belief that the church which had been established on our soil was purer than any church of Christendom.” And second, from Virginia’s son Thomas Jefferson, whose “religious faith was a form of Christianity which had passed through the rationalism of the French Enlightenment.”12 Niebuhr quoted Jefferson on America’s innate superiority to Europe, though he failed to comment on Jefferson’s reference to a millennium of American (at least mental or spiritual) ascendency:

“If all the sovereigns of Europe,” [Jefferson] declared, “were to set themselves to work to emancipate the minds of their subjects from their present ignorance and prejudice and that as zealously as they now attempt the contrary a thousand years would not place them on that high ground on which our common people are now setting out.”13

It wouldn’t have surprised Niebuhr, then, that the president who wanted to help history along enough to start a preventative (or “preemptive”) war would be an evangelical Christian and would have little use for European leaders’ advice. Presidential candidate George W. Bush, when asked during a 1999 Republican debate in Iowa what “political philosopher or thinker” he identified with most, responded, “Christ, because he changed my heart.” Applying the Sunday school strategy of answering every question with “Jesus,” of course, doesn’t work in political science.14 And applying the Christian project of redemption of human nature (“he changed my heart”) to government makes Christ a reformer of human nature rather than a redeemer, and so makes Bush’s political theory no better in this regard than that of an Hegelian or a Marxist, who also sought to reform human nature through government.15

But human nature cannot be reformed, and history, like the poor, will always be with us. The Macbeths’ “all-hail hereafter” turns out to be a bloody mess. Macbeth can’t stop now, however. He is immortal.

The witches’ second round of prophecies leave Macbeth looking for a second political hereafter – the real hereafter – which Macbeth now reasons is delayed long enough for him to win an apocalyptic battle against Macduff, Malcolm, and the large English army they return to Scotland with. (Berman points out that all modern idealist political movements, religious and secular, promote myths that include an Armageddon – a final battle that ends history and ushers in the ideal state.)16

At the height of his invincibility – just before he hears news that puts in doubt his understanding of the witches’ prophesies – Macbeth hears that Lady Macbeth has died. Here Shakespeare employed the play’s fourth and final hereafter, and the only one that falls from Macbeth’s lips:

SEYTON
The queen, my lord, is dead.

MACBETH
She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
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,
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing. (5.5.16-27)

It’s presumptuous of me to add anything new to the commentary these lines have generated over the last four centuries. I believe as much of it as I’ve read: Macbeth clearly loves Lady Macbeth, and her death brings him closer to himself, prepares us for his undoing, and reminds the audience of Macbeth’s heroic sensibility that permits his tragedy. The repetition of “tomorrow” acts to slow time to something without meaning, much like the repeated and meaningless words that Lady Macbeth utters in her madness, which are “full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing.” I’d add only that Macbeth here still believes in a hereafter – a time on earth after history’s end – and one that may go on forever thanks to his newly promised immortality. But he now realizes that the Armageddon he thinks he’s about to win will be empty not only of history but also of love.

Whether I give my friend a fish, train my friend to fish, or train and fund my friend’s country to establish and maintain a fishing industry that increases everyone’s standard of living, I had better do it from love. If I do it to create a future or to change the world, I am nothing. And if I talk about my future kingdom, I had better be talking from a cross.

None of Macbeth‘s four “hereafters” refer to the afterlife. The notion of life after death, whether or not one believes in it, must be acknowledged as a belief also in the impossibility of man’s reaching his fullest expression in this life. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s belief in a political hereafter that will “jump the life to come,” that is, will bring eternity (or at least an end of history) to the political present, is particularly modern for reasons best stated by Niebuhr:

It is generally taken for granted [in the modern era] that the highest ends of life can be fulfilled in man’s historic existence. This confidence makes for utopian visions of historical possibilities on the one hand and for rather materialistic conceptions of human ends on the other. All concepts of immortality are dismissed as the fruit of wishful thinking. This dismissal usually involves indifference toward the tension in human existence, created by the fact that “our reach is beyond our grasp,” and that every sensitive individual has a relation to a structure of meaning which is never fulfilled in the vicissitudes of actual history.17

As mentioned earlier, a believer in a life after death may believe also in something like Macbeth’s political hereafter. The contrapositive is also true: a disbeliever in a life after death may also not believe in the modern idea that “the highest ends of life can be fulfilled in man’s historic existence.” But Niebuhr rightly recognizes that, at a societal level, the dismissal of life after death has been accompanied by an “indifference toward the tension in human existence, created by the fact that ‘our reach is beyond our grasp,'” and this indifference makes us more susceptible to political hereafters on earth.

If we don’t believe in something like what Niebuhr calls “the mystery of the individual’s freedom and uniqueness”18 and in its messy consequence – the “mystery of . . . the drama of history”19 – then our desire for ideal forms will drive us to form ideal states on earth. If we wrongly expand on Christianity’s teaching that human nature can be redeemed by insisting that human nature can be reformed as well, we will destroy ourselves. If we believe that history can be tamed just as science teaches that nature can be tamed, we will destroy ourselves.

If we destroy ourselves and our planet by war – nuclear, cyber, biological, chemical, or otherwise – it would probably be, from a literary standpoint, only the latest and bloodiest production of Macbeth.

  1. Shakespeare, William. Macbeth (The New Cambridge Shakespeare) (Kindle Location 5569). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
  2. Shakespeare, supra, at Kindle location 6297.
  3. Berman, Paul. Terror and Liberalism. New York: Norton, 2003, at 49. Macbeth takes in all ideologies, too. The play addresses no specific ideology: it was written while ideologies were stirring but before they had been released into the political atmosphere. Its indeterminate target in this regard is a grace. Because it discovers the nature of all political ideology, Macbeth becomes the most perspicuous and chilling political play.
  4. Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Irony of American History. University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition, at 62.
  5. Id. at 63.
  6. Id. at 62.
  7. Id. at 13.
  8. Shakespeare, William. Macbeth (The New Cambridge Shakespeare) (Kindle Locations 1221-1222). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
  9. Id. at Kindle Locations 1206-1207.
  10. Niebuhr, supra, at 145-46.
  11. 5.3.15-16
  12. Niebuhr, supra, at 25.
  13. Id. at 26.
  14. The morning after the debate, Bush made his frightening response worse, explaining that he had taken the question to mean, “Who’s had the most influence on your life?” How could he have conflated those two questions?
  15. Compare Bush’s response to the “favorite political philosopher” question to that of his immediate successor, who had labeled the Iraq War “a dumb war” at its inception. Obama has called Niebuhr his “favorite philosopher.” Speaking to Concordia University Professor Paul Allen in 2008, Obama said he gleaned from Niebuhr that, “There’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. I take away … the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.”
  16. Berman, supra, at 49.
  17. Niebuhr, supra, at 6.
  18. Id. at 8.
  19. Id. at 14.