Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Unhappy Endings

It is always fun to engage with a serious thinker, so I am happy to offer a few comments on an article by the always-instructive Martha Nussbaum. It is called, "Stages of Thought," and is published in The New Republic.

In it Nussbaum reviews several books on Shakespeare and philosophy and attempts to draw conclusions about human psychology. In the process she adds some life lessons.

There are several problems with her commentary. The books, and Nussbaum's article, focus largely on tragedy. But why do philosophers and psychotherapists always draw life lessons from tragedy? This unfortunate theoretical habit did not begin with Freud, but he certainly helped enshrine it in the culture.

At best, tragedies are cautionary. They tell you what not to do, not how to conduct your life.

Beyond that, why does Nussbaum assume so easily that Shakespeare was offering us "real life." Why accept that Othello was a man, that Desdemona was a woman, that Romeo and Juliet convey young love, and that Shakespeare's version of Antony and Cleopatra express a mature love relationship.

Is Shakespeare providing something like an extracted, universal essence of human behavior? If so you will have no difficulty believing that our true human motivations coincide with those of Oedipus.

Try a different angle. Imagine that Othello is a fictional character; idem for Desdemona, Hamlet, Romeo, and Juliet. Like Antony and Cleopatra, they may be based on real people. They were not created out of nothing, but were derived from models.

Now, ask yourself this: Do you believe that a painting offers the truth about the artist's model? Doesn't art transform reality? Aren't the rules of storytelling different from the rules of social interaction? Why do you assume that fiction offers a higher truth?

Strangely, Nussbaum becomes so invested in the notion that Antony and Cleopatra represent the best of an adult love relationship that she claims that their love had nothing to do with their tragic ending.

If that were true Shakespeare would be a decidedly inferior playwright. The play may not be the greatest of the great tragedies, but it is certainly not as flawed as Nussbaum's observations would have us believe.

Normally, real life does not make for good stories. When it does, something has clearly gone wrong. Besides, why do we imagine that Romeo and Juliet represent young love more than, say, Beatrice and Benedict.

I will not say that art has nothing to do with human behavior, but I would limit the scope: tragic heroes represent an extreme of human possibility, they do not represent the truth of human being.

What life lessons does Nussbaum draw? Trotting out D. W. Winnicott's distinction between the true and false self, she declares that the true self is childlike, vulnerable, emotional, and receptive. The true self resembles your inner child.

The false self, in contrast, wants to be competent and in control. It complies with external rules and conforms to social norms. According to Nussbaum and Winnicott the false self is like a mask that is deployed to hide human vulnerability and childlike silliness.

Of course, the false self sounds like normal adult behavior. By the lights of this theory the progress of human life and the process of human maturation are nothing more than a systematic repression of our warm, fuzzy inner children.

If this is true then the ability to function as a responsible adult in society represents loss. You may feel that you have, in growing up, gained wisdom and experience. You may feel that your ability to exercise self-control is a good thing. The therapy culture says otherwise.

According to two of its most distinguished theorists, life is a downhill run that always ends badly. Is it any wonder that people who feed at this theoretical trough become depressed?

By Nussbaum's reading Othello was a soldier who repressed his vulnerable, silly, emotional inner child. This latter returned with a vengeance in the form of pathological jealousy.

Here Nussbaum is offering a life lesson. Show your vulnerability, allow yourself to be emotional, give vent to your infantile silliness... and you will have a good adult love relationship, like Antony and Cleopatra.

Nussbaum is saying that as we grow up we should bring our infantile selves along for the ride. She counsels us against putting away the toys of childhood.

Think about it. Do you believe that a man or a woman could succeed in a position of leadership if he or she were to display vulnerability, emotionality, or plain silliness. Can anyone lead by showing inconstancy and weakness?

As it happens, Shakespeare did not think so. Were she not as infatuated with tragedy, Nussbaum might have recalled what Prince Hal, become King Henry V, told Falstaff in Henry IV, Part 2. Addressing the person who surely represented his "true self" and who was pleading to come along for the ride,Henry says:

Presume not that I am the thing I was,
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turned away my former self.

Now, Henry V is not on the path that would lead to a great love affair. He is also not on the way to becoming a tragic hero. And yet, wouldn't the therapy culture say that he had repressed his true self?

Perhaps this therapeutic notion that we can become competent, functioning adults without sacrificing something of our past childishness is simply a modern form of hubris. Being an adult means recognizing that we cannot be all things to all people at all times. it also means that we have to accept that the way we behaved at 6 should not hang around until we are 60.

Surely, there are times when it is good to display some vulnerability and silliness. But to make yourself into a human fiction where these are an integral part of your adult self... that is a formula for an unhappy ending.

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