JD Bernal, The World, The Flesh and the Devil: An Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul (Verso: London, 2017)
Last year’s ‘reading river’ reflected a monomaniac attitude towards Shakespeare, which I think I’m going to try to avoid this year.
First off was a virtual trolley dash through the sale aisle of Verso Books, ‘the largest independent, radical publishing house in the English-speaking world‘ on New Year’s Eve. Only one of the baker’s dozen of political tracts I bought had any specific link to Shakespeare But I can’t and won’t dismiss Shakespeare entirely this year, and there’s some added fun in finding the ‘applicability’ – NOT ‘relatability’ – of my wider reading to the plays, and vice versa.
Bernal’s essay was first published in 1929. Unlike Shakespeare, he’s known mostly as a pioneer in X-ray crystallography. This slim volume was a discourse on the future, not the past. For someone with an interest in Robots, AI and Science Fiction generally, his
extrapolations about the evolution of the human (he posits a kind of transhumanism where our senses are logically augmented and replaced, as are, eventually, our limbs) and about humanity’s place in the stars (hollowed-out asteroids being the next Big Thing, it seems) were enjoyable and stimulating.
But there was plenty of other stuff that seemed ‘applicable’ – reflections on the nature of desire and the future – which got me thinking about the plays that involve ambition, as well as the general succession issues towards the end of the sixteenth-century. And the quotation which has most stuck in my mind was this one:
Man is occupied and has been persistently occupied since his separate evolution, with three kinds of struggle: first with the massive, unintelligent forces of nature, heat and cold, winds, rivers, matter and energy; secondly, with the things closer to him, animals and plants, his own body, its health and disease; and lastly, with his desires and fears, his imaginations and stupidities.
This speaks to me, very obviously, of King Lear. Lear’s downfall is punctuated by his struggle with, and blaming of, forces beyond his control. He challenges the very heavens, and articulates his disgust for divine indifference:
As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods.
They kill us for their sport. (IV.i)
His anger is by turns more temporal:
How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is
To have a thankless child! (I.iv)
and his fears turn inward:
O, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven!
Keep me in temper; I would not be mad! (I.v)
Ultimately, though, his venting is ineffective, pointless.
What Bernal describes above as the struggle with man’s own ‘imaginations and stupidities‘ calls to my mind that often beautiful, touching and truly tragic moment of anagnorisis that occurs towards the end of each tragedy.
Poor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just. (III.iv)
Railing at the Gods, or Destiny, or even at Antagonists tends to be wasted time and effort, but these moments of self-reflection and self-realization are frequently the most affecting – and effective – ones in the plays. These characters are not scientists, nor prophets, but they are at their most human and humane when they turn towards philosophy. The pity, of course, is that for our tragic heroes, our Lears and our Hamlets, these moments usually come all too late …
Quotations from plays all taken from www.opensourceshakespeare.org