Monday, December 29, 2014

Macbeth's friendlessness

I've always been haunted by this soliloquy --
Seyton!--I am sick at heart,
When I behold--Seyton, I say!--This push
Will cheer me ever, or disseat me now.
I have lived long enough: my way of life
Is fall'n into the sear, the yellow leaf;
And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but, in their stead,
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not. Seyton!
-- by the way Macbeth begins by calling upon Seyton, twice, the way it interrupts itself and then begins again, and then interrupts itself once more to call for Seyton again.  I vacillated between writing "the way it interrupts itself" and "the way he interrupts himself."  But it's the speech that's interrupting itself: the sense of social agency that belongs to a person speaking is over now, or all but over.

This is the first time that Macbeth calls on Seyton, the first time he's mentioned.  Shakespeare was writing Antony and Cleopatra at the same time as Macbeth, and in both plays he is interested in the last unimportant figures who stay loyal to the end, whose loyalty is only noticeable, who are themselves only noticeable, at the end (in A&C it's the schoolmaster Antony sends to negotiate with Caesar).  Seyton matters here because he's the only person Macbeth can count on, because Macbeth still knows that persons are what you count on, that being a person, being able to speak, means being able to speak with someone, to have them care what you say.

I think I'm obsessed by the minimalism of this soliloquy (as in sonnet 73, the language is headed towards the lesser adjectives: sear to the understated yellow; cf. yellow leaves, or none, or few, as though "few" were fewer still than none, as yellow is consciously less sublime, less an achievement, than sear).  "Honour" isn't replaced by abasement but by "mouth-honour," a repetition with a difference that is not revolution.  And he must not look to have these things: it's not just that he won't have them, but that he can't dally with their false surmise.  But he can call Seyton, good air, his only friend.

"When I behold--": prelude to some grand comment on life and its depths, as in the roughly contemporaneous Sonnet 12:
When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls, all silvered o'er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer's green all girded up in sheaves,
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;
And nothing 'gainst Time's scythe can make defence
Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.
Shakespeare questions even the young man's beauty and its defense against time, when he beholds the violet past prime; Marvell worries, "When I behold the poet, blind yet bold," that Milton will ruin the sacred truths; Wordsworth's heart leaps up when he beholds a rainbow in the sky.  But Macbeth doesn't need to finish the thought: there's no lesson to be learned here, no reaction that matters, no when which marks any sort of achievement or perspective.  He has lived long enough to be past whens (she should have died hereafter, either way, so when doesn't matter).

I love this soliloquy, I think, because it doesn't state anything, any insight, any generalization, or rather it's all generalization, since there are no particulars that matter any more, nothing he may look to have.  "The poor heart" isn't it's own, but it's what all hearts are now, thanks to him.  He calls Seyton, I think, partly to interrupt these thoughts, but partly to confirm them: calling Seyton and being alone are the same thing.  Not that Seyton is indifferent to him, but that being alone is the human condition in a different way from the way we imagined.  It's not that we're irremediably separated from each other; it's that we're alone together, that we think for others (that's what soliloquies are always about), but what we think about for them is being alone.


NoteDo not say that Shakespeare is writing a hysterical speech for Macbeth here, that he's calling Seyton so insistently so as not to be alone with his own thoughts, like Lear calling on the storm so as not to ponder on things would hurt him more.  Seyton is more like his Fool, but without any of the Fool's presence: most of the Fool's loneliness is internalized in Macbeth, and Seyton represents more the residual element in Macbeth's character that corresponds to the part of Lear's heart that is sorry for the Fool yet.  But Macbeth is not sorry for Seyton: that's just not in question within the residual affect of the scene 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Sweets to the sweet

I've been loving, for a long time, the way Shakespeare uses the word sweet.  Two obvious instances.  In Richard II the Queen, puzzled over her own free-floating sadness, says:
                                                   I cannot tell
Why I should welcome such a guest as grief
Save bidding farewell to so sweet a guest
As my sweet Richard.
And then Edgar's amazing, ambivalent lament:
                                 O our lives' sweetness
That we the pain of death would hourly die
Rather than die at once.
It's an amazing word for Shakespeare, and tends to come at times of sadness and need: "If you do love old men, if your sweet sway allow obedience, if you yourselves are old," Lear pleas with the heavens. Sweet sway.

And I've been thinking why it's such a good word: because it's great and ephemeral, the experience of tasting, not possessing, and the purer the sweetness the less it's about even the idea of something lasting. It's Ashbery's "charity of the hard moments," but without hardness or charity: the sweetness of the moment, as it "Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself / Unto our gentle senses." It's just for now, but that's pretty great, the way a play can be pretty great.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014


We has them.  I want a cheezburger, and I can has cheezburger, but I don't want to want one.

Thomas Schelling and George Ainslie, among many others, use the story of Odysseus and the sirens to illustrate strategies of commitment in strategic interaction, strategies by which we disclaim our most highly ranked preferences.  Odysseus knows that no one can resist the siren-song lure of the Sirens’ song.  But he wishes to hear the song.  He therefore instructs his sailors to fill their ears with wax, so that they won’t hear it, and to bind him to the mast so that he cannot react to the song by forcing the sailors to change course.  He is binding a future version of himself whose preference he know will differ from his present preference – which is to resist the temptation of the song.  He knows that his preference will change, and he is preventing his changed preference from overriding what he also knows is the better, higher payoff, longer term preference that he now has.

This has become a standard example in the literature of behavioral economics.  But what I would like to add is the further idea that Odysseus has yet another preference, which is a preference for his preference to change.  Odysseus knows that the Sirens’ song will make him want to succumb, and he wants to want to succumb.  But he doesn’t want to succumb.  Binding himself is a way of experiencing the desire to lose himself in their singing without fulfilling that desire so completely that there will be no more self to lose, without fulfilling that desire so completely as to lose the experience of its haunting elusiveness in the all-too-present recognition that it is a mere trap.  He desires its elusiveness to his own desires (as Swann desires the little phrase), which means desiring not to fulfill his desire to catch it.  He wants to miss it, and miss it intensely, and therefore experience its essential absence, as Beckett wants to miss his love, and therefore experience her essential absence and therefore love her:

     I would like my love to die
     and the rain to be falling on the graveyard 
     and on me walking the streets
     mourning the first and last to love me
And compare Basho:

     Even in Kyoto
     hearing a cuckoo
     I long for Kyoto
                  (trans. Jane Hirshfield)

Odysseus’s affective and qualitative experience is one of preferring to have a preference not only different from his current preference to resist yielding to the Sirens’ song, so that he’ll want to yield to that song then: he wants as well for his future preference not only to be frustrated but to feel frustrated, since the inability to yield to temptation is part of the longing he longs to feel. (Ainslie elsewhere describes what he calls the management of longing, which means managing to keep longing going.)  So Odysseus prefers not to yield to the Sirens’ song, but also prefers a future where he will not to yield to the Sirens’ song even while preferring to yield to it, where part of the content of the preference to yield to the Sirens’ song is a hopeless preference for a preference not to yield to it.  (In the same way it’s part of the pleasure of smoking that the cigarette trumps our desire not to want it: “the perfect type of a perfect pleasure.  It is exquisite and it leaves one unsatisfied.  What more can one want?” (Wilde)  What more can one want than to be unsatisfied?    Not smoking offers a satisfaction (or end to longing) that can’t compete with the frustration of that satisfaction that smoking offers. Smoking when we want to smoke frustrates our desire not to want to smoke, recruits the longing not to want to smoke into a longing for smoking’s exquisite way of leaving one longing.  It’s so insidious because the pleasure of smoking includes the very preference not to take pleasure in smoking.  Odysseus wants to feel the pleasure of wishing the Sirens’ song were not so irresistibly beautiful, so he wants to hear a song that will make him wish he didn’t want to hear it so much.  He binds himself because he does not want to yield to the song, but does want to want to yield to the song, to yield to a song that will make him want to yield despite wanting not to yield.  Gathering terms, this gives us the following near-paradox: he prefers to the preference he has now – not to yield – not having the preference he has now, but having instead a preference for the preference he has now.

I love this kind of inconsistency in preference in literature, where you’d prefer not the preference you have but to have the preference that you have.  We’ve seen it in Beckett, and we can see something similar in a lovely, funny moment in China Mieville’s The City & the City.  The vaguely Balkan detective narrating that noir novel and his assistant Corwi are working themselves to exhaustion:

I stopped and bought us coffee from a new place, before we went back to the HQ. 
American coffee, to Corwi's disgust. 
"I thought you liked it aj Tyrko," she said, sniffing it.
"I do, but even more than I like it aj Tyrko, I don't care."

Here, very simply, not having a preference is ranked higher than his actual preference.  But on what scale? Not a scale of preferences, but maybe on a scale he prefers to the scale of preferences.  This is a microexample of the authentic mode of the noir detective, broken and defeated, but unbroken and undefeated by being broken and defeated.  Its simple complexity is really a complex simplicity, and that's just what Kant says aesthetic achievement is: the resolved irresolution of preferences among preferences.