Saturday, August 15, 2009

Another Divide

Rest, rest, perturbed spirit! So, gentlemen,
With all my love I do commend me to you:
And what so poor a man as Hamlet is
May do, to express his love and friending to you,
God willing, shall not lack. Let us go in together;
And still your fingers on your lips, I pray.
The time is out of joint: O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!
Nay, come, let’s go together.
[Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5]
The sense that times are out of joint is present at all times and in every clime, so much so that it seems to be a defining marker of existence. The root of the feeling is that the social landscape is disorganized; we can always trace it to groups, to institutional constraints—or lack thereof. Along with this feeling comes a totally unjustified nostalgia for another kind of order. In democratic times we yearn for royalty, in royal times for liberty, in isolated times for great families, for coherent clans; in times when families dominate, we long for privacy.

Disorder leads to polarization. Here is how: somebody must be responsible for it, and that somebody ain’t me. So it must be those people. And looking at those people, we soon recognize their common traits, ignore the traits we share with them, and now we have someone to blame. But our own desperate coping just adds to the disorder. And those people are doing the same thing. So it goes.

There is a kind of comfort in being, say, a Guelf or Ghibelline. We’re born into one or the other, we learn the ways of our party and find them, therefore, natural. There is a significant sense of exposure and solitude associated with rising above these natural polarizations, like being on a mountaintop without adequate clothing, the wind tearing through the sky. Not only can it be seen by others as indifference, but, to remain detached, one has to practice indifference voluntarily. You can see from the mountaintop but you can’t join in the melee, and it is precisely in the joy of battle that we experience solidarity with our fellow man.

These are real problems. The only way to see reality sharply is by reason, but the polarization that takes place is guided by feeling, by selective viewing, and by shallow penetration. To see things clearly produces the state of indulgence suggested by Madame de Staël: Tout comprendre rend très indulgent*. When people are irritated, they don’t want to be rendered indulgent; they want to be confirmed and want to be fed red meat. This, of course, applies to me as well as anybody else. That’s why I describe this situation as a problem.

As Hamlet says, “O cursed spite!” He expresses precisely the feeling I often have when, stopping in the middle of a passionate rant I realize what I am doing. Damn! The very state to which I aspire demands quite often that I stop indulging in passion and render myself indulgent of bottomless stupidy which, not surprisingly, does take on the semblance of unmitigated evil.

This much by way of trying to transcend the feelings of upwelling ire aroused in me by reading today’s morning paper.

* * *

These days a phrase like Guelfs and Ghibellines may appear like ostentatious display of learning. In the modern manner, I apologize for that. The words refer to what today we would call political parties. Guelfs, to be sure, have a somewhat more intimate relationship to Ghulf Genes because, long ago, I deliberately named a fictional, futuristic family—which was also much more than a family—for the Guelfs. Indeed, my own Ghulfs also had color-based branches, just like, in Italy, the Guelfs came in white and black varieties. But back to the background.

During the so-called Dark Ages, the Western Roman Empire was overrun by Germanic tribes; and the descendants of these became one branching of the upper layers, the aristocracies, of Italy. Both of these names were originally of Germanic origin, the Guelfs were from the Bavarian house of Welf, the Ghibellines came from the Hohenstaufen line, the name itself derived from their castle of Waiblingen. Two important parties or factions rose from these roots, divided politics, and produce endless civil wars in the Middle Ages, especially in Italy, dominated, as it was, by small city states. The Ghibellines were the party of empire, thus associated with the Holy Roman Emperor from the time of Charlemagne (the first of these) down through time. The Guelfs, by contrast, were aligned with the Papacy, which was the counter-weight to the imperial power. The world tends always to divide into parties, hence my choice here of these two—especially because we are in Ghulf territory here, and, despite aspirations to transcendence, I remain a Ghulf.

* * *

Last, one sentence in that speech of Hamlet's bothered me enough so that I rendered it in modified English for easier grasp. It is:

.... So, gentlemen,
I recommend myself to you, I do.
And what a poor man, like Hamlet, can show
You in the way of love and friendship,
In that, God willing, there shall be no lack.”

Presumptuous? Come on... All poets belong to the same union.
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*That phrase is often misquoted. The correction necessary is indicated here.

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