Saturday, April 24, 2021

Shakespeare's Empathy

The stupidification of America proceeds apace. Now, a literature professor from Drexel University schools us by pretending that Shakespeare’s plays are dripping the milk of human kindness. The plays are, Paula Marantz Cohen postulates, all about empathy.

As noted in previous posts, the rage for empathy does not merely misunderstand empathy. It represents a new way to sell men on the need to get in touch with their feminine sides. Obviously, the culture had a problem selling men their feminine sides, so it has glommed on to empathy, and is now telling men that even Shakespeare became more empathetic with age. Dumb ideas die hard.

I trust you will forgive me for not having read Cohen’s book. But, it is published by Yale University Press, and we ought at least to notice that Yale Professor Paul Bloom, a man occasionally quoted on this blog, has already shown that empathizing does not necessarily make anyone kinder and gentler. It might just as easily, as Adam Smith had pointed out centuries ago, make people into sadists. Links here and here.

When Donald Trump’s supporters saw him getting abused and harassed on a daily basis, they felt empathy for him and they wanted to avenge the abuse. You might agree or disagree with their tactics, but at the least, the experience, as well as Prof. Bloom’s book, Against Empathy, shows us that empathy is not quite the panacea that its proponents pretend that it is. One suspects that Cohen has not addressed the arguments against empathy, and this is a very good reason not to read her book. 

Thus, I quote from the Wall Street Journal review, written by another empathy monger, by name of Melissa Holbrook Pierson.

Pierson describes Cohen’s thesis, namely that Shakespeare’s plays represent a type of therapy, whereby, in writing them, he gained insight into his toxic masculinity and allowed his inner empath to express itself. Seriously, there's more to life than therapy.

In Pierson’s words:

Her [Cohen's] thesis is that in conceiving progressively more nuanced characters who express their humanity in stereo—with a dual focus on their own troubled lives and their relationships with others—the playwright schooled himself in empathy.

Note the expression, “humanity in stereo.” It is perfectly mindless and meaningless. Anyway, Cohen apparently is happy to quote Harold Bloom-- no relation to Paul-- to the effect that Shakespeare invented the human. One has to admit that Bloom’s notion was absurd on its face. 

Human beings belong to groups. They belong to families, communities and nations. They do not identify themselves as human beings. No character in Shakespeare becomes more or less human, more or less empathic. As for humanity’s foundation, it lay, according to the book of Genesis in the acquisition of free will. Humans are moral beings because acting ethically is the basis for functioning effectively in groups. 

Harold Bloom, she notes, asserted that Shakespeare “invented the human,” but what exactly did he mean? His formulation suggests what Ms. Cohen’s contention makes explicit: The ability to empathize—per the dictionary, “the power of entering into the experience of or understanding objects or emotions outside ourselves”—can be considered humanity’s foundation. She finds empathy central to the manifold power of Shakespeare’s work, the element which has allowed it to outlast the time that gave rise to it.

Of course, group cohesion is more important than feeling anyone’s feelings. And group cohesion is produced by following a single set of rules, rules that belong to one group and not to another. Different groups speak different languages. Different groups have different customs and manners. But all human societies have language and all have customs and manners. If you do not understand the structure of social interaction, as well as the structure of storytelling and language usage, you will never understand Shakespeare.

So, the notion of expanding kindness is simply silly:

She proceeds to demonstrate the progress of Shakespeare’s expanding “kindness,” as simplified in the book’s title, over the course of eight plays.

Being as Cohen is presumably totally woke, she shares the brilliant insights of her students, students who are so woke that they cannot read Shakespeare except as a commentary on systemic racism. This is pathetic and does not elicit any empathy for the author:

As the university’s student body grows increasingly diverse, she finds classroom perspectives deepening on a wealth of issues in the works. Students coming of age in the time of #MeToo and a heightened awareness of systemic racism have different takes on such plays as “As You Like It” and “Othello” than students a generation before. In this way, “Of Human Kindness” performs its own central idea.

As for Cohen’s readings of plays, they range between empty and vapid:

Thus Othello is a more developed Shylock, as both Iago and Othello are “driven to villainy by a wound to their humanity.” Lear is Hamlet confronting the estrangements of old age. And “Antony and Cleopatra” is a more chiaroscuro, “late-life rewrite of Romeo and Juliet.” In essence, Shakespeare used his own plays as a developmental workshop.

A developmental workshop-- spare us the drivel. In the first place, it is a fundamental error to read plays as commentaries on the playwright’s psyche. If the plays appeal to everyone else, the reason must be that they are not merely a function of the man Will Shakespeare. 

Iago is not trying to destroy Othello because the latter wounded his humanity. Whatever does it mean to wound your humanity. Othello is not susceptible to the notion that his wife is cheating because it is a wound to his humanity. The minimal Darwinian analysis would suggest that the play would better be understood in terms of a struggle for status and power. And the analysis would also suggest that Othello’s jealousy had something to do with a man’s doubts that his wife might give birth to someone else’s children. Or else, his doubts that his wife could really love him.

The notion that King Lear is an aging Hamlet strikes this reader as especially stupid. Hamlet’s problem is not merely a need to avenge his father’s murder. It is-- that he is not sure that his father was really his father. The play dramatizes the question of the cost of adultery-- it has nothing to do with the insipid issue of humanity, whatever that may mean.

As for King Lear, the doddering old fool makes a calamitous mistake in handing his kingdom over to his daughters, in believing their protestations of love, and in imagining that they will still respect him after he has relinquished his power. As the play demonstrates, the language of love is not Lear's language, and he should have avoided the temptation to get in touch with his feminine, loveable side.

As for Romeo and Juliet being rewritten into Antony and Cleopatra, the thought is too silly to entertain. 

As Aristotle suggested, tragedies befall those who have become arrogant, who suffer from hubris. They fall from a high situation because they believe that they are above the law, that the rules do not apply to them.

As for the high comedies, God only knows why Cohen’s students think that As You Like It has anything to do with systemic racism. If her students think such a thing, that can only mean that they are too stupid to understand the play. As everyone ought to know, the high comedies are about courtship. They are about changing courtly love, which was largely limited to adulterous relationships between married women and younger boys, into a ritual leading to marriage. The plays show the development of new mating customs that arrived in Europe with the Protestant Reformation. 

Sad to say, but this purportedly new form of Shakespearean criticism is merely a symptom of a culture that is losing its collective mind. The correct term is not empathetic, which most of the empaths do not understand anyway, but pathetic. 


Sam L. said...

"The stupidification of America proceeds apace. Now, a literature professor from Drexel University schools us by pretending that Shakespeare’s plays are dripping the mild of human kindness." The "mild" of human kindness????

"As for Cohen’s readings of plays, they range between empty and vapid:" I think she's just making this up as she goes.

n.n said...

Religion (i.e. behavioral protocol), mortal gods and goddesses, secular lucre and strife, and an em-pathetic effort to construct and exploit leverage for social (a la feminist, masculinist, ddiversitist) progress. That said, all's fair in lust and abortion.

urbane legend said...

I tried to get in touch with my feminine side. I couldn't empathize with high heels.