Thursday, August 25, 2011

Wilkinson comments on human nature

London guest correspondent Heward Wilkinson comments below on the nature of the human. Wilkinson makes the point that human nature has indeed changed, but he argues that change occurred long before the nineteenth century. Linda Theil

Changes in Consciousness and Changes in Human Nature: Shapiro and the emergence of biographically slanted literature by Dr. Heward Wilkinson 
In response to Linda Theil's comments on Shapiro's presentation, I think Shapiro's assumption is indeed that human nature changed around the time of Garrick's Shakespeare Festival (1769) or Boswell's Life of Johnson (1791). This is indeed problematical (though it is not wholly without merit, thinking of Romanticism!). 

However, I do not think we should dismiss the idea that human nature itself changed. Leaving aside the huge theme of the emergence of consciousness from the bicameral mind around 1000 BCE [], one of the great traditional literary scholars, CS Lewis, argues that consciousness indeed changed in Provence in 11th century, with the advent of Courtly Love. This then shapes the work of such introducers of the vernacular as both Chaucer and Dante, and it leads on to Spenser and Shakespeare. That such notions are valid is suggested in relation to Shakespeare by one of the greatest, if most maverick, of Stratfordian Shakespeare critics, Harold Bloom, who notoriously writes of 'Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human' []. And TS Eliot postulated a 'dissociation of sensibility' in the 17th Century []. We should be vigorously using such historical considerations in our arguments. 

CS Lewis writes, in The Allegory of Love p. 4 []:     
French poets, in the eleventh century, discovered or invented or were the first to express, that romantic species of passion which English poets were still writing about in the nineteenth. They effected a change, which has left no corner of our ethics, our imagination, or our daily life, untouched, and they erected impassible barriers between us and the classical past, or the Oriental present. Compared with this revolution the Renaissance is a mere ripple on the surface of literature.
There can be no mistake about the novelty of romantic love: our only difficulty is to imagine in all its barrenness the mental world that existed before its coming - to wipe out of our minds, for a moment, nearly all that makes the food both of modern sentimentality and modern cynicism.
There is much more in the same vein. Nietzsche took this for granted, and accounted for it (in, if I recall, The Genealogy of Morals), as indeed Lewis does, by the influence of, and reaction against, Christian ideals of devotion to God. Hegel makes a parallel argument in The Phenomenology of Spirit. That 'biographical' interpretation of fictional work is part of this is engagingly illustrated by Spenser himself in his poem to Oxford at the beginning of The Fairie Queene! Flattery or no flattery, it means the concept was as familiar as cliche to the Elizabethans!
REceiue most Noble Lord in gentle gree,
The vnripe fruit of an vnready wit:
Which by thy countenaunce doth craue to bee
Defended from foule Enuies poisnous bit.
Which so to doe may thee right well befit,
Sith th'antique glory of thine auncestry
Vnder a shady vele is therein writ,
And eke thine owne long liuing memory,
Succeeding them in true nobility:
And also for the loue, which thou doest beare
To th'Heliconian ymps, and they to thee,
They vnto thee, and thou to them most deare:
Deare as thou art unto thy selfe, so loue
That loues & honours thee, as doth behoue. 

I am not convinced of Shapiro as a closet subversive of Stratfordism. Rather, I believe he really is as a-historical and uncritical as he seems to be. The degree of his scholarly slipshodness he evinces has been commented upon by many, like Roger Stritmatter [] and Richard Waugamann []. 
For me, the crashing contradiction which hits one between the eyes [] is his use of the same Shakespearean example, Theseus's speech at the beginning of Act 5 of Midsummer's Night's Dream, to illustrate simultaneously (!), 
A. Shakespeare's repudiation of any attribution of true biographical meaning in poetic writing (in favour of 'imagination'), 
B. Shapiro's actual attribution of Theseus' very positivistic views (which are congruent with Theseus' contextual role in the play) to Shakespeare himself
i.e., not only is he prepared to break his own rule at the very climax of his book, but he does it at the very instant he is propounding the rule! 

It is a wonderful illustration of the paradox of the liar, and that Shapiro seems not to be in the least aware of it, either means he is a completely conscienceless journalist politician and rhetorician (IF he is aware of it), OR so unscholarly that it is actually breathtaking. I lean to the latter, and accordingly believe he does believe his own position, and that it is academic incompetence that keeps him from noticing the problems.

This would also go with his a-historical mentality, and short-term positivistic populism, which makes his supposed insight into the historical character and development of biographically slanted fictional writing and theatre seem like a revelation to him, overturning his own VERY recent forays into 'biographical' interpretation [].         

Dr. Heward Wilkinson
Hon. Fellow of UKCP
UKCP Registered Integrative Psychotherapist