From Thought to Presence

June 17, 2016

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

“To be, or not to be: that is the question.” - Shakespeare, Hamlet

Last week, we discussed the practice of being fully present within an actual moment, whereas today we will discover what a number of authors say about the mind's ability to conjure presences, to bring memories into a present moment. When discussing being, we utilize the present progressive tense. Something that exists at this actual moment and we project that it will continue to exist into the next moment, and the next. When we focus on our immediate present, only our own immediate presence should be reflected. Hamlet's “to be or not to be” speech ponders what existence truly means. Being is the essential question. Hamlet also questions this form of presence, this ache that stirs us to remember other people, places, memories. He wonders if it is not better to sleep, to die, to dream. These forms of escape would allow him to remove himself from his current situation, which causes a great amount of stress. He wishes to flee, but then claims that his will refuses to go in any unknown direction. He concludes, “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all” (III, i, 92).

Emily Brontë created an excellent dialogue regarding the idea of a presence in Wuthering Heights. Near the end of the novel, Heathcliff explains the anguish of his life without Catherine. He says, “'Nelly, there is a strange change approaching – I'm in its shadow at present – I take so little interest in my daily life, that I hardly remember to eat, and drink – Those two who have left the room are the only objects which retain a distinct material appearance to me; and, that appearance causes me pain, amounting to agony. About her I won't speak; and I don't desire to think; but I earnestly wish she were invisible – her presence invokes only maddening sensations. He moves me differently; and yet if I could do it without seeming insane, I'd never see him again! You'll perhaps think me rather inclined to become so,' he added, making an effort to smile, 'if I try to describe the thousand forms of past associations, and ideas he awakens, or embodies – But you'll not talk of what I tell you, and my mind is so eternally secluded in itself, it is tempting, at last, to turn it out altogether'”. This change that Heathcliff speaks of becomes a physical presence. Seeing the children reminds him of so many past memories, it physically pains him. He is drawn to certain rooms for their memories and, in the end, he literally feels Catherine's proximity, a ghostly presence that comforts him. Nelly can find no other reason for his behavior, but believes that “conscience had turned his heart to an earthly hell”.

Macbeth too, hears voices and see phantoms, caused by a guilty conscience. Jane Eyre hears Rochester's voice calling her back from the heath. There are also the works of Edgar Allen Poe, or Dante's Inferno, or Odysseus finding his mother in the Underworld. In these examples, all have experienced some major trauma or change that now affects their mental stability. In “Parmenides”, Plato discusses the relationship between being and non-being. This dialogue spins the head a bit, but, of course, that is precisely what happens to the person who confronts trauma through memory. A connection presents itself between being and non-being in this dialogue. It reads, “The one who is not, if it is to maintain itself, must have the being of not-being as the bond of not-being, just as being must have as a bond the not-being of not-being in order to perfect its own being; for the truest assertion of the being of being and of the not-being of not-being is when being partakes of the being of being, and not of the being of not-being – that is, the perfection of being; and when not-being does not partake of the not-being of not-being but of the being of not-being – that is the perfection of not-being.” The odd part of this connection is that it can also be viewed as a rupture, or a trauma. Connection to an other can cause trauma.

Last week, in our discussion of what it means to be present, Deepak Chopra offered his advice for maintaining focus. In addition to ideas regarding a present state of mind, Chopra also discusses a form of this idea of presence, the type revealed from the mind's own energy. He claims that the creation of a presence is an awareness of spiritual energy. He writes, “Through our energy or consciousness, we have an unlimited capacity to send out ripples that will help the planet and its inhabitants move in the most evolutionary direction – from fear, hostility and unrest to love, compassion, peace, and joy." This appears similar to Hegel's idea of a Universal Spirit which moves through unrest into peace and love. This optimistic idea breeds connection and continuance in a newly-landscaped (post-traumatic) world. These literary characters struggle to find balance, and that struggle informs the reader about trauma, change, and pain. It also informs us of a path towards connection.

If the mind's power conjures images of a being through memory alone, what other type of connective energy does it have? Is the use of this skill to maintain connection? To prove of spiritual energy? To remind us of love and empathy? What use have we for the skills of being present and/or of conjuring a presence?

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Why We Need Hamlet

October 9, 2015

“there is nothing

either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”

Our modern calender lists two basic reference points: BCE and AD. If we were to create a new calendar for the modern era, perhaps we could write it as before and after Shakespeare. A playwright whose works influenced every author for centuries, Shakespearean language has seeped into our daily habits and rhetoric. He created characters of such force that we know them better than we know ourselves. The celebration and spirit of his works help us to better understand human history. We only have time to focus on one character today, but perhaps Hamlet can better demonstrate how entrenched we are in Shakespeare.

Hamlet is a self-crusade in the sense of The Crusades, tortuously making himself, constantly questioning and reasoning with himself. With him Shakespeare bridges a gap of human spiritual development that no one before ably captured. Due to Hamlet's self-creation, self-debating, and dialogue, we are more aware of our own spiritual selves. In the Philosophy of History, Hegel writes: “That the history of the world, with all the changing scenes which its annals present, is this process of development and realization of spirit – this is the true Theodicaea, the justification of God in history. Only this insight can reconcile spirit with the history of the world – viz., that what has happened, and is happening every day, is not only not 'without God,' but is essentially His work.”

Hamlet, therefore, functions on two levels. First, Hamlet proves to be a mirror of self and the larger social community, reflecting the truth of ourselves back to us. This idea is bound to the historical self. Secondly, the play creates dialogue for a future self, for the immortal self, highlighting morals, paths, obstacles. Hegel also states, “The will – potentially true – mistakes itself, and separates itself from the true and proper aim by particular, limited aims. Yet it is in this struggle with itself and contrariety to its bias, that it realizes its wishes; it contends against the object which it really desires, and thus accomplishes it; for implicitly, potentially, it is reconciled.” The idea of individual rights and individual souls has not always existed. As humans gained worldly experience, they also gained independence and freedom. Hamlet expresses the individual experience.

Part of this is due to Hamlet's lengthy speeches. Shakespeare's longest play devotes most of the dialogue to Hamlet. Imagine the novelty of listening to a play where much of the speech is new or creative and catchy. Shakespeare coined many new phrases in order to breathe life into characters, give them depth and allow the audience to intimately understand the character's inner turmoil, personality and self. Shakespeare was aware that human speech is riddled with personality, that it is extremely difficult to write true emotion and that a full-bodied character must speak, not only eloquently, but uniquely. Shakespeare created his own urban dictionary as a form of character development. Renowned literary critic Harold Bloom places Shakespeare as the first 'genius' in his book Genius. Bloom writes, “Shakespeare's language is primary to his art, and is flourabundant.... The true Shakespearean difference, the uniqueness of his genius, is elsewhere, in his universality, in the persuasive illusion (is it illusion?) that he has peopled a world, remarkably like what we take to be our own, with men, women, and children preturnaturally natural.” Shakespeare created people, not characters, but people with souls, complexities, and contradictions.

According to Bloom, Shakespeare's genius stems from his ability to allow characters an element of 'self-overhearing'. This idea of hearing oneself for a brief moment as if external is quickly replaced by the knowledge that voice and audience are the same. Powerful moments of recognition occur again and again in Hamlet whose famous 'To be or not to be' recalls us to ourselves. Hamlet embodies and demonstrates the process of development and the realization of spirit that Hegel described. Bloom writes, “In the Hegelian sense, Hamlet is the freest artist of himself, and could tell us much more about what he represents, if only there were time enough. I interpret that to mean that Hamlet is the supreme artist of self-overhearing, and so could teach us at least the rudiments of that disconcerting art. To hear yourself, at least for an instant, without self-recognition, is to open your spirits to the tempests of change.” Great civilizations of human history have labored towards this openness, this space, until finally reflected in Hamlet himself, immortalized by Shakespeare's brilliant play. Bloom continues, “If to invent the ever-augmenting inner spirit, including its faculty for self-overhearing, is not the invention of the human, as we since have known the human, then perhaps we are too overwhelmed by social history and by ideologies to recognize our indebtedness to William Shakespeare.”

Image ID:  252134389. Copyright: Everett Historical.

Image ID:  252134389. Copyright: Everett Historical.

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