Antisemitism

Hatred is directed anger. Though we can claim metaphorically to hate
unconscious objects or abstractions, hatred is typically directed at another person or persons. Hatred is evoked by suffering that we perceive they caused. Since it leads to actions against these persons, hatred can also be described as “ill
will.”

Emotions can overwhelm reason. Passion is not logical. We often hate
without any justification. Hatred must then be maintained by fictions that describe the evil nature of those we hate.

Antisemitism is the most enduring and most unjustified of human hatreds.
The ill will suffered by the Jewish people has lasted for thousands of years, and has led to countless crimes, the most terrible of which was the Holocaust wherein 6 million Jews were put to death by the Nazi Government of Germany (Bauer, 2001; Marrus, 1987). ;

Antisemitism has been inspired by many fictions. This posting considers the unfortunate power of some of the stories that paved the way to the Holocaust.



Some Simple Psychology

Anger arises when we experience suffering, especially when we believe it
to be unwarranted, and when we are thwarted from achieving what we desire,
especially when we believe that we entitled to it. Anger seeks to attack these causes: to hit out at those who strike us; to break those who obstruct us.

We tend to think of events as caused by persons. Even when forces of
nature act against us we may attribute them to a divinity or a devil, or to
those who worship them. Only in that way can anger find a target for its
release.

Sometimes the causes of our anger are too complicated to understand or too powerful to fight against. In these cases, we may vent our anger elsewhere and attack other human beings, while inventing plausible (though fictional) reasons for so doing.

…every instance of suffering, every feeling of displeasure, by whomsoever and in whatsoever way it may have been caused, whether it arises from the guilt or from the lawful activity of another person, or through the sufferer’s own fault, or without any fault, or even without any human influence, tends to transform itself into a feeling of enmity, to direct itself against fellow-humans and if possible to express itself against them. (Bernstein, 1951, p 85)

As we were growing up during childhood, we realized – at about the age
of three – that we can exert some control over our environment. We therefore created a self as the agent of this control. At about the same time we realized that the world contains other agents. These could either help us or hinder us. We became comfortable with those that helped and learned to cooperate with them. We feared the others.

The group appears to be a curious form of extension of the individual. It seems as if under the influence of the necessities of human communal life, human beings who need love and produce hate combine into new, collective and collectively selfish individualities of a higher order; directing their love inwards, their hate outward, their social instincts towards the insider, their anti-social tendencies toward the outsider. (Bernstein, 1951, p 109-110)

Those who cooperated in groups came to have similar desires and modes of
behavior. They followed the same rules and sought the same goals. Those who
were different became isolated. These “others” challenge our group-identification (Chanes, 2004, p 3). In our search for where to vent our anger, we often light upon those that are different from us. Especially if these people are small in number and not inclined to violence.

While for normal group enmity a certain regularity in the mutual expression of enmity is characteristic, the antagonism between a powerful majority and a powerless minority is characterised by a onesidedness of hostile actions which is fatal for the minority. For the latter is exposed to continual attacks and must confine itself to laborious attempts to maintain its existence, without a chance to resist actively to any extent; even its passive means of defense are totally inadequate and its existence often has to rely on nothing but periodical flight from place to place. This onesided relation of
permanent attack and failing defense is called persecution. Weak minority
groups are usually persecuted more or less emphatically. (Bernstein, 1951, p 224)

The actual psychological mechanisms that lead to antisemitism are not
really understood. Some believe that there are personality-types that are more easily convinced to vent their hatred on minorities. The role of authority and power is undoubtedly a factor (Morse & Allport, 1952; Milgram, 1974). Those who seek power or wish to maintain it gain great support by fomenting hatred. Propaganda – invented stories – have a tremendous power. For some reason the more incredible the story the more easily it is believed (Baum, 2012). Dehumanization of the victims serves to attenuate our inherent tendency to help our fellows. (Bandura et al., 1975)

For millennia the Jewish people have allowed us to vent our hatred. For
millennia we have invented reasons for our violence.

The hostility toward a minority exacerbates the feelings that initially triggered. When persecuted, a minority does not fare well in society and often comes to appear even more deserving of denigration and oppression (Beller, 2007, p 5).

Antisemitism is not caused by the Jews but by the inadequacy of those who need to hate them.

…two psychological characteristics are present in the individual antisemite: excessive hostility and the need (and a capacity) to project one’s aggression on other groups. Persons who have these traits generally suffer from feelings of inadequacy and from the feeling that their own personal borders, psychologically speaking, are easily invaded by others (Chanes, 2004, p 7)

We can perhaps conclude this section with two epigrams from Jean-Paul Sartre (1948):

If the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would invent him (p 13)
Antisemitism is not a Jewish problem: it is our problem. (p 152)

The People of the Covenant

The Jews consider themselves God’s chosen people. In the Hebrew
scripture Yahweh made a covenant with Abraham, and then renewed the covenant with Jacob and with Moses. The Jews were to worship Yahweh as the one true God and to follow his commandments. The Jews would then serve as an example for the rest of humanity

I the Lord have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles (Isaiah
42:6).

In return, the Jews would be considered special

For thou art an holy people unto the Lord
thy God, and the Lord hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto
himself, above all the nations that are upon the earth. (Deuteronomy 14:2)

And were promised as their home the land containing what is now the country of Israel

In the same day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates (Genesis 15:18)

God’s covenant with the Jews was based on their keeping the commandments that he revealed to Moses. Rembrandt’s 1659 painting Moses with the Tablets of the Law shows Moses holding aloft the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments had been written. These were engraved on two separate stones (Exodus 31:18, 32:15). In the painting, only the second tablet is completely visible giving the 6th to 10th commandments (Exodus 20:13-17). These begin with: “Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not steal:” (Hebrew illustrated on the right).

No one is sure what moment in the story of the tablets Rembrandt is representing. Is it when he first displays these to the Hebrews? or when he is about to shatter them on the ground because the Hebrews had been worshipping the Golden Calf while he had been on Mount Sinai with God (Exodus 32:19)? or is it when he returns to God and brings a second set of tablets back to the chastised Hebrews (Exodus 34:1). Moses’ face is shining with revelation rather than angry. Perhaps, Rembrandt has painted the moment when Moses first displays the commandments.

No group of people is perfect. However, the Jews have contributed more than their share to the human endeavor – in philosophy, science, medicine, politics, art, music, literature. And for the most part the, laws that they accepted as part of their covenant with God have served them well. They are indeed an example to other people.

So why were and are they so often reviled? It is unlikely a reaction to their chutzpah in claiming to be God’s chosen. In the Middle Ages this was called the Insolentia Judaeorum. Yet every one of the world’s many religions claims to be just as special.

One defining aspect of the Jewish religion is that it is monotheistic. The first commandments state that a Jew must obey Jehovah and not even pay lip-service to any other god or idol:

I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them
(Exodus 20:2-5).

The Jewish religion thus combines the worship of one god with strict obedience to his commandments. As Prager and Telushkin (2003) have suggested, this ethical monotheism may have offended those who followed other gods. Jews refused to follow the proverbial injunction that when in Rome do as the Romans do. For example, the outburst of violence against the Jews in Alexandria in 38 CE (then part of the Roman Empire) was triggered by their refusal to place statues of the Emperor Caligula in their temples (Goldstein, 2012).

One should respect the beliefs of others. However, respect does not mean obeying rules that go against one’s own moral principles. The Jewish people’s refusal to acknowledge or worship other gods has continued to the present. In particular Jews do not recognize the divinity of Jesus Christ.

In addition to the Ten Commandments, Yahweh’s covenant with the Jewish people involved numerous other rules of behavior. These included strict stipulations about the types of food that they might eat and the methods in which this food should be prepared. Over the ages observant Jews have thus been unable to share meals with those of other faiths. And although some of the ancient Jewish philosophers – Hillel and Maimonides for example – were open to ideas beyond the Covenant, strict Judaism limited itself to the study of the Torah and its interpretations.

The Covenant with Yahweh thus isolated the Jewish people from the rest of humanity. They could not share the beliefs, the food or the thoughts of others. They antagonized others by their claim to be the chosen people.

So we have the idea that antisemitism is in part caused by the very character of the Jewish religion. This would explain why the Jews have been reviled by so many different people in so many different countries. The following was written Bernard Lazare in 1894. He was a Jewish polemicist who wrote the first defense of Captain Alfred Dreyfus. Yet even he thought that the Jews were partly to blame for antisemitism.

Inasmuch as the enemies of the Jews belonged to divers races; as they dwelled far apart from one another, were ruled by different laws and governed by opposite principles; as they had not the same customs and differed in spirit from one another, so that they could not possibly judge alike of any subject, it must needs be that the general causes of antisemitism have always resided in Israel itself, and not in those who antagonized it…. Which virtues or which vices have earned for the Jew this universal enmity? Why was he ill-treated and hated alike and in turn by the Alexandrians and the Romans, by the Persians and the Arabs, by the Turks and the Christian nations? Because, everywhere up to our own days the Jew was an unsociable being. (Lazare, 1894/1903, pp 8-9)

This seems so reasonable. Yet it is false. It does not explain the cause of antisemitism. It is just an excuse. It blames the victim for the crime.

The Crucifixion of Christ

In the early decades of the Common Era, Jesus, a Jewish teacher from Nazareth, brought new insight to the interpretation of Jewish law. He simplified the commandments by expressing them as the need to love the Lord and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. He criticized the rigid adherence to the Sabbath, and the commercialization of the Temple. He proclaimed the idea of a Kingdom of Heaven. Many of the more observant Jews were disconcerted by his teachings. The Romans were upset that he was proposing a new kingdom. Jesus was arraigned before Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, condemned and crucified.

A few days after his death and burial, the tomb of Jesus was found empty. Many of his followers claimed that they afterwards saw him in person. They therefore believed that he had been resurrected. They continued to meet and discuss his teachings. They were either tolerated by other Jews or condemned as heretics.

A learned Jew named Saul was one of those that persecuted the followers of Jesus. However, on the road to Damascus he had a vision of Jesus that completely altered his thinking. He changed his name to Paul, and began to provide an over-arching theory about the death and resurrection of Jesus. His main ideas were that Jesus was the Son of God, the Messiah prophesied in the scriptures, that he died to release us from our sins, and that we shall all be saved from death by having faith in Jesus called Christ (the “anointed”).

For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures;
And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures (I Corinthians 15:3-4)

Paul’s major teaching was that one could never attain salvation by following the Mosaic laws. No one is perfect. Everyone breaks the law. However, Christ offers salvation if we repent our sins and have faith in him.

Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified. (Galatians 2:16).

Paul’s letters describing these ideas are the earliest of the Christian scriptures. Written in the years 50-60 CE these predate by 20 to 50 years the four gospels, which describe the life and teachings of Jesus.

The followers of Jesus in the 1st Century CE differed in their opinion about his relationship to the Jews. Some thought that the message of Jesus was for the Jews; others that it was for both Jews and Gentiles. Most of Paul’s teaching was directed to the Gentiles. In some of his letters he laments the inability of many of his Jewish colleagues to understand God’s new covenant.

For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God which in Judaea are in Christ Jesus: for ye also have suffered like things of your own countrymen, even as they have of the Jews:
Who both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they please not God, and are contrary to all men:
Forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved, to fill up their sins alway: for the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost.
(I Thessalonians 2:14-16)

Some of the gospels continued this criticism of the Jews (Crossan, 1995). This is perhaps most evident in the gospel of Matthew. He describes how the Jews forced Pilate to crucify Jesus, and willingly accepted the responsibility for his death:

When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it.
Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our
children. (Matthew 27: 24-25)

The major event in Jewish history of the 1st Century CE was the Great Revolt of the Jews against Roman rule. This began in 66 CE and culminated in the Destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. The illustration below shows a representation in the Arch of Titus of the Romans carrying the spoils from the temple. Among the spoils is the great Menorah that once gave light to the Tabernacle.

At this time many Jews fled their homeland and settled in other countries. The Jewish people have been exiled at many times in its history – the Assyrian conquest (733 BCE), the Babylonian captivity (597 BCE), the Great Revolt (70 CE), the later Bar Kokhba Rebellion (132 CE). Though some Jews remained in Israel, most lived in the Diaspora (“scattering”) – far from the land that from the days of Moses they had considered their God-given home.

The Destruction of the Temple seemed to many Christians a divine response to the action of the Jews in crucifying their Lord. Though the Romans crucified Jesus, some of the early Christians considered the Jews responsible. The Jews were thus guilty of deicide and should be reviled and cast out from Christian society. Even if they were not guilty, they should be chastised for not recognizing the salvation offered by Christ – for staying with the old dispensation rather than following the new.

These ideas have long permeated the thinking of the Christian Church. Many of the cathedrals illustrate these concepts by contrasting sculptures of Ecclesia and Synagoga. The statues on the south portail of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Strasbourg from the 13th Century CE are particularly impressive. Legend has it that these were created by a female sculptor Sabina von Steinbach, though there is no real evidence for this. Ecclesia with her crown, holds in her hands the cross and the chalice. She looks with pity on Synagoga, who is blindfolded and cannot see the truth. She holds in her hands the tablets of the law and the lance that the centurion used to bring the crucifixion to an end. The lance was shattered by the resurrection.

The following illustration shows the complete portail. Ecclesia and Synagoga are on the left and right sides. In the center sits Solomon in judgement between the old covenant and the new. Above him is Christ, Salvator Mundi (savior of the world). The carvings in the tympanums represent the dormition, assumption and coronation of the Virgin Mary.

The statues of Ecclesia and Synagoga are impressive examples of gothic art. Though superficially beautiful, they obscure rather than convey the truth. The feelings against the Jews that they evoke are a complete betrayal of Jesus, a Jew who taught in the synagogues of Palestine.

One might have hoped that the antisemitism of the Christian Church would have been excised by the Reformation. But this was not to be. Martin Luther was virulently antisemitic. In his The Jews and Their Lies (1543, pp 39-42) he advises Christians to burn their synagogues of the Jews, their houses, and their books, prohibit their Rabbis from teaching, not allow them to travel on the highways, and prohibit them from lending money. Luther was a harbinger of Kristallnacht.

Wild Accusations

During the Middle Ages people could not understand why life was so often brutal. An easy way to explain the various disasters was to attribute them to the Jews. If the Jews could kill God, there was no telling what other crimes they were capable of.

On Good Friday in 1144 the body of a child called William was discovered in the woods near Norwich in England. The Jews were accused of murdering the child. No credible evidence was ever found. However, a monk who had just converted from Judaism to Christianity claimed that the Jews had decided to sacrifice a Christian child to re-enact the death of Christ. Several Jews were slaughtered. William was declared a martyr. Pilgrims flocked to his tomb. Miracles occurred.

William of Norwich was the first documented case of Jews being accused of ritual murder. As the years went by similar accusations arose in multiple different regions of Europe (Goldstein, 2012). Many of these cases included the idea that the Jews used the blood of their victims to make the unleavened bread used in the celebration of Passover. This particular accusation was called the “blood libel.” It makes no sense. Kosher regulations require that observant Jews never eat food contaminated with blood. Jews go to great lengths to remove blood from meat before it can be eaten.

The Christian Bible contains the Hebrew scriptures in what it calls the Old Testament. Some of these writings described how the blood of sacrificed animals played an important role in the ceremonies of the ancient Hebrews, e.g.

And he shall kill the bullock before the Lord: and the priests, Aaron’s sons, shall bring the blood, and sprinkle the blood round about upon the altar that is by the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. (Leviticus 1:5).

Other ancient Hebrew writings are even more disconcerting. One of the foundational stories of Judaism is the Akedah (“binding”), wherein the Patriarch Abraham, at the request of Jehovah, takes his son Isaac to Mount Moriah to sacrifice him (Genesis 22). Although an angel stays Abraham’s hand at the last moment, this fails to attenuate the story’s horror. The illustration below shows Rembrandt’s 1655 etching.

The Old Testament contains other stories wherein children were sacrificed. To defeat the Ammonites, Jephthah promised the Lord that he would sacrifice whatever came out of his house when he returned from battle. Jehovah gave the victory to the Israelites. When Jephthah returned home, his daughter came to greet him, dancing and playing the tambourine (Judges 11).

There is also a suggestion that King Manasseh sacrificed his son – the wording is “he made his son pass through the fire” (2 Kings 21:6). These events and the idea that the terrible place near Jerusalem called Gehenna or Tophet was actually a site of human sacrifice are discussed at length by Stavrakopoulou (2004). The practice was banned by Yahweh speaking through his prophet Jeremiah:

And they have built the high places of Tophet, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; which I commanded them not; neither came it into my heart. (Jeremiah 7:31).

One can perhaps imagine how such stories from the Old Testament might have allowed credulous people to accept the idea that the Jews might sacrifice Christian children and use their blood for their ceremonies. When one’s faith requires a belief in miracles, wild rumors are not easily contradicted.

The main sacrament of the Christian Church is the Eucharist, wherein the congregation partakes of bread and wine that have been especially blessed. According to the church, these had been miraculously “transubstantiated” to the body  of Jesus, who was sacrificed to save the world. The sacramental bread is called the host (from the Latin hostia for sacrificial victim). In many places and at many times the Jews were accused of “desecrating” the host. The following illustration shows a 1469 sequence of paintings by Paolo Uccello that tell the story of the Miracle of the Desecrated Host. Both the full sequence and the particular panels illustrating the second and fifth episodes are shown. The paintings were on the predella to the altar in the Corpus Domin church in Urbino. The retable painting above the predella by Justus van Gent presented the Institution of the Eucharist.

The six episodes in the predella show

  1. a woman sells a portion of the consecrated host to a Jewish merchant
  2. when the Jew tries to burn the host, it starts to bleed, alerting the city guards
  3. a holy procession is needed to re-consecrate the host
  4. the woman is burned at the stake; she repents and an angel descends from heaven to save her
  5. the Jew and his family are burned at the stake; no angel intervenes
  6. two angels and two devils argue over the woman’s body

As the Black Death (Bubonic Plague) spread across Europe in the 14th Century, Jews were accused of poisoning wells and spreading the disease. Many Jews were condemned to death by fire fort these crimes. No one noticed that Jews died from the pandemic just as frequently as their Christian neighbors. Nor that burning Jews at the stake had no effect on the spread of the disease. A half century later, Jacob von Königshofen wrote a critical history of these times. The following is his description of the massacre of the Jews in Strasbourg at the height of the Black Death in 1349:

In the matter of this plague the Jews throughout the world were reviled and accused in all lands of having caused it through the poison which they are said to have put into the water and the wells – that is what they were accused of – and for this reason the Jews were burnt all the way from the Mediterranean into Germany, but not in Avignon, for the pope protected them there. On Saturday-that was St. Valentine’s Day, they burnt the Jews on a wooden platform in their cemetery. There were about two thousand people of them. Those who wanted to baptize themselves were spared. Many small children were taken out of the fire and baptized against the will of their fathers and mothers. And everything that was owed to the Jews was cancelled, and the Jews had to surrender all pledges and notes that they had taken for debts. The council, however, took the direct cash that the Jews possessed and divided it among the working men proportionately. The money was indeed the thing that killed the Jews. If they had been poor and if the feudal lords had not been in debt to them, they would not have been burnt. After this wealth was divided among the artisans some gave their share to the Cathedral or to the Church on the advice of their confessors. Thus were the Jews burnt at Strasbourg. (quoted in Marcus, 1938, p.47)

Forces other than the plague were at play. Debt caused as much suffering as disease. As the historian notes, “The money was indeed the thing that killed the Jews.”

Usury

The Old Testament contains several injunctions against usury. Originally “usury” was simply any interest charged on loans. The meaning of the term has changed as the relations between religion and commerce have developed. At present, usury is generally limited to exorbitant interest.

In one of the earliest mentions of usury in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Jewish people are forbidden to charge interest on loans to fellow-Jews although they may so charge strangers:

Unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury; but unto thy brother thou shalt not lend upon usury (Deuteronomy 23:20).

In the New Testament usury is only occasionally considered:

But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing
again (Luke 6:35).

Nevertheless, the Christian Church decided early in its history that usury was a sin (Moehlman, 1934). In the council of Nicaea of 327 CE it forbade clergy to collect interest on any debts. In the Third Lateran Council of 1179, it decreed

Since in almost every place the crime of usury has become so prevalent that many persons give up all other business and become usurers, as if it were permitted, regarding not its prohibition in both testaments, we ordain that manifest usurers shall not be admitted to communion, nor, if they die in their sin, receive Christian burial, and that no priest shall accept their alms. (Moehlman, 1934, pp 6-7)

Thus for most of the middle ages it was difficult for people in business to obtain financial support for their enterprises. Jewish merchants, untrammeled by Christian prohibitions, unable to own land, and often prevented from practicing trades because of exclusively Christian guilds, gradually assume the responsibility for lending money in return for interest (Foxman, 2010). Some kings and princes found the linguistic abilities and financial connections of the Jews appealing and appointed them to their courts. However, most Jews remained poor and unrecognized – traders, shopkeepers, pawnbrokers and minor moneylenders.  

In later years the Catholic Church found itself in need of capital to build its churches, and revised its doctrine on usury, founding its own lending organizations called Mounts of Piety (Monte de Pieta). The oldest bank in the world, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, derives from one of these lenders. After the Reformation, Protestants re-interpreted the scriptures and established their own investment banks.

Jewish lenders prospered and some of our current banks have Jewish roots, the Rothschild banks and Goldman-Sachs being two of the biggest. However, almost all of the world’s largest banks were actually founded by Gentiles. The idea that the Jews control international banking is ludicrous. Why one should only consider the religion of a banker when he is Jewish is invidious (Foxman, 2010). One never mentions the Roman Catholic origins of the Bank of America or the Presbyterian origins of Wells Fargo. Yet Jewish bankers have long been game for hateful cartoons. The depiction of “King Rothschild” by Charles Lucien Léandre shown on the right is from the cover of Le Rire, April 16, 1898. Above Rothschild is the Golden Calf that was worshipped by the  the idea of Mammon, the idol of wealth condemned in the New Testament:

No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. (Matthew 6:24).

The myth of Jewish greed has become a mainstay of antisemitic thought. Richard Wagner (1850) cannot get away from it even though he is supposed to be writing about music.

According to the present constitution of this world, the Jew in truth is already more than emancipate: he rules, and will rule, so long as Money remains the power before which all our doings and our dealings lose their force.

Even Jewish writers have been convinced of the myth

Thus, by himself and by those around him; by his own laws and by those imposed upon him; by his artificial nature and circumstances, the Jew was directed to gold. He was prepared to be changer, lender, usurer, one who strives after the metal, first for the pleasures it could afford and then afterwards for the sole happiness of possessing it; one who greedily seizes gold and avariciously immobilizes it. (Lazare, 1903, p 110).

The Pale of Settlement

As the Middle Ages progressed, the Jews were expelled from many European countries: England, 1290; France, 1306; Hungary, 1349; Austria, 1421; Spain, 1492; Portugal, 1497 (Baum 2012, p. 18). Other countries required that the Jews live apart from Christians in regions that came to be known as ghettos, from the Venetian dialect word for “foundry” located near where the first ghetto was established in Venice in 1516. Other ghettos were later set up throughout Italy, and then in Germany and in Poland (Goldstein, 2012, p 130)

Many of the expelled Jews moved to Eastern Europe. They settled in the
regions that now form the countries of Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine. Much of this area was then part of the Kingdom of Poland. Polish nobles welcomed the new immigrants. Many Jews were used as tax-collectors. This did sit well with some of the Eastern Orthodox Slavic people who chafed under the control of Catholic Poland. In 1648, the Cossacks in Ukraine rebelled under the leadership of Bohdan Khmelnytsky. During this war, tens of thousands of Poles and Jews were massacred (Bacon 2003). The Eastern Orthodox Church was every bit as antisemitic as the Roman Catholic Church. Ukraine became independent of Poland and soon became part of the Russian Empire. Later Poland itself would be partitioned between Prussia, Austria and Russia and cease to exist as an independent kingdom.

The “Pale of Settlement” was set up in 1791 by Catherine the Great. This was an area in the Western regions of the Russian Empire wherein Jews were allowed to live. The term “pale” refers to the stakes that delineated the area
– the word was originally used to describe an area in Ireland under the control of the English crown. Over the years many of the Jews in central Russia were exiled to the Pale of Settlement. As shown in the map (adapted from Wikipedia, originally created by Thomas Gun) the Jewish percentage of the population in these regions was significant. Around 1900, the Jews in the Pale of Settlement numbered almost 5 million (about half the total number of Jews in the world), and formed about 10% of the general population of the area. 

The ghettos and the Pale of Settlement separated the Jews from their neighbors. Their resultant isolation of the Jews increased their “unlikeness” or “otherness.” By closing them off in localized areas beyond the reach of normal civil authorities, it also made them more susceptible to random violence.

In 1881, Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in St. Petersburg by a group
of revolutionaries. The group Narodnaya Volya (“People’s Will”) was
composed of Russian-born anarchists, but one young woman was Jewish. The new Tsar Alexander III believed that the Jews were behind the assassination and unleashed a series of pogroms in the Pale of Settlement to avenge his father’s death.

The word “pogrom” derives from a Russian word for storm or devastation. Christians in a community were encouraged to murder their Jewish neighbors – killers of Christ and assassins of the Emperor. The police were ordered not to intervene. These pogroms continued into for several years. Thousands of Jews were killed.

The pogroms returned in 1903-1906 during the reign of Tsar Nicholas II. These appear to have been instigated by members of the Tsar’s secret police. One political rationale for these actions against the Jews was to rally the Russian people around the Tsar and against all those that were promoting the modernization of Russia.

The first pogrom of the 20th Century began in Kishinev, Moldava (then known as Bessarabia), on Easter Sunday in 1903. A child had been found murdered, and city leaders accused the Jews of his murder. Patriotism, blood libel and deicide worked together to create a rampaging and  murderous mob (Penkower, 2004). The following is an illustration from the French Journal L’Assiette de Beurre of April, 1903, depicting the aftermath of the Easter pogrom.

The novel The Lazarus Project by Aleksander Hemon (2008), which tells the story of a survivor of the Kishinev pogrom who immigrated to the United States, provides a vivid description of the violence and its far-reaching consequents. The epic poem City of the Killings written in 1903 by the Jewish poet Chaim Bialik to commemorate the massacre begins:

Rise and go to the town of the killings and you’ll come to the yards
and with your eyes and your own hand feel the fence
and on the trees and on the stones and plaster of the walls
the congealed blood and hardened brains of the dead.

The Protocols

At about this time there appeared the first traces of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (Nilus, 1906/1922). This document purported to be the secret plans of Jewish Leaders to take over the world. The protocols describe how these elders will sow dissension and confusion amidst the goyim and ultimately step in to rule:

In order to put public opinion into our hands we must bring it into a state of bewilderment by giving expression from all sides to so many contradictory opinions and for such length of time as will suffice to make the goyim lose their heads in the labyrinth and come to see that the best thing is to have no opinion of any kind in matters political, which it is not given to the public to understand because they are understood only by him who guides the public. This is the first secret.
The second secret requisite for the success of our government is comprised in the following; To multiply to such an extent national railings, habits, passions, conditions of civil life, that it will be impossible for anyone to know where he is in the resulting chaos, so that the people in consequence will fail to understand one another. This measure will also serve us in another way, namely, to sow discord in all parties, to dislocate all collective forces which are still unwilling to submit to us, and to discourage any kind of personal initiative which might in any degree hinder our affair. There is nothing more dangerous than personal initiative; if it has genius behind it, such initiative can do more than can be done by millions of people among whom we have sown discord. We most so direct the education of the goyim communities that whenever they come upon a matter requiring initiative they may drop their hands in despairing impotence. The strain which results from freedom of action saps the forces when it meets with the freedom of another. From this collision arise grave moral shocks, disenchantment, failures. By all these means we shall so wear down the goyim that they will be compelled to offer us international power of a nature that by its position will enable us without any violence gradually to absorb all the State forces of the world and to form a Super-Government. (Protocol 5)

The reader easily recognizes the confusions of the modern world. Our
natural paranoia quickly attributes this to outside agents rather than to the
simple complexity of political forces. Human beings have long imagined that our lives are controlled by secret societies such as the Templars, the
Rosicrucians, the Jesuits, the Illuminati, the Masons, and the New World Order (Eco, 1994, pp 132-139). The Protocols of the Elders of Zion identified these clandestine agents as the Jews.

The protocols are a complete fiction (Eisner, 2005; Hagemeister, 2008). They were largely plagiarized from a satire against the French Emperor Napoleon II written by Maurice Joly in 1864 entitled The Dialogue in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesquieu (Graves, 1921). The most widely accepted story is that a Russian exile living in France, Mathieu Golovinski, adapted Joly’s satire into an antisemitic tract at the instigation of the Tsar’s secret police, who wished to impugn the forces of modernization in Russia, and to whip up hatred of the Jews as a distraction from the government’s problems.

Despite being proven a fiction, the Protocols have been republished over and over again. The illustration at the right shows the cover of a French Version published in 1934. The design is loosely based on Léandre’s 1898 cartoon depiction of Rothschild. The cover artist goes by the alias ‘Christian Goy.” In the 20th Century the Protocols are widely published in Muslim countries, where they serve to foster animus against Israel. Why do people still believe that this tract represents the truth? It is easier to believe in a simple fiction than in complex facts. The confusion of the modern world is caused by the interactions of many different political
forces. It is simpler to believe it is caused by the Jews than to try to understand the real causes.

Rootless Cosmopolitans

During the 18th and 19th Century nationalism became one of the main forces in European politics. As the Age of Enlightenment and the Age of Revolution undermined the legitimacy of divinely ordained dynasties, the people developed the idea of a nation – a community conceived or “imagined” in three ways: shared culture, limited geographic extent, and governance by the people (Anderson, 2016). Inherent in the concept of a nation was the idea that all its citizens should have equal rights. Nationalism gained its greatest impetus from the revolutions in the United States and France in the 18th century, and from the later Revolutions of 1848 in Europe.

According to the ideals of nationalism, no one should be discriminated against on the basis of their religion. As part of this movement Jewish citizens began therefore to be accepted as equal participants in the new nations (Mendes-Flohr, 1996; Barnavi, 2003, pp 158-9). This emancipation occurred slowly: France in 1791; Prussia in 1812; Belgium in 1830; the Netherlands in 1834 the United Kingdom in 1858; Austria 1867; the United States in 1877 (reviewed in Wikipedia).  

Although nationalism wants all its citizens, regardless of their beliefs or background to be equal, it would prefer them to be homogeneous, all believing in the same national ideals. Yet no nation is homogeneous. The success of a nation depends on how it comes together despite its differences.

As nationalism progressed, suspicions about the Jewish people remained. This worry was presaged by the Conte de Clermont‑Tonnere in a speech to France’s new National Assembly in 1789. He initially proposed the principle “that the profession, or manner of worship of a man, can never be motives for depriving him of the Rights of Election.” He then listed some of the arguments against giving citizenship to the Jews and declared them invalid:

It is here I am at tacked by the adversaries of the Jews. That people, say they, are unsociable; usury is enjoined them; they cannot be united with us, either by marriage, or habitual intercourse; they are forbidden our meats, and interdicted our tables. Our armies will never be recruited by Jews; they will never take up arms for the defense of their country. The weightiest of these reproaches is unjust, the others are but specious.

However, he then recognized that Jews may have commitments outside of the nation in which they would be granted full citizenship. They have religious and financial ties to colleagues in other nations. They may wish to be governed by their own laws and judged according to their scriptures. They could thus be a nation within a nation. So he suggested that

you should deny the Jews every thing as a distinct nation, and grant them every thing as individuals.

This idea that Jews were still different from other citizens persisted. The very fact of the diaspora worked against them. With their allegiances to other Jewish communities in other countries, they seemed “cosmopolitan” rather than patriotic. They interfered with a nation’s sense of itself. In the Middle Ages the Jew was assailed because he was not Christian. In the Modern Age he was assailed because he was not truly French or German or Russian. In both cases he was not “one of us.”

The idea of the Jews as “rootless cosmopolitans” was (and is) one of the main tenets of Russian antisemitism. It was basic to the foundation of the Pale of Settlement in Tsarist times and it continued in the socialist regime that followed the Russian Revolution. The following is a description of cosmopolitans from Vissarion Belinsky, a 19th century literary critic who promoted the idea of a truly Russian literature:

The cosmopolitan is a false, senseless, strange and incomprehensive phenomenon, a manifestation in which there is something insipid and vague. He is a corrupt, unfeeling creature, totally unworthy of being called by the holy name of man (quoted in Pinkus, 1988, pp 153-154).

Despite Soviet Russia’s professed goal of the brotherhood of man, the idea of the Jew as a “rootless cosmopolitan” persisted after the Revolution. It came to a frightening culmination in the accusations against the Jewish doctors in 1952-3 (Carfield, 2002). It is frightening to note the similarity between Communist thought and the Fascist idea of Bodenlosigkeit (lack of “ground” in the sense of a place to have roots).

The ideas of nationhood radically changed the lives of many Jews (Arendt, 1951). Intent on proving themselves good citizens of the new nations, they relinquished some of their religious beliefs and behaviors. They became secular. Some even converted to the state religion, hoping to become “assimilated” into general society. Despite all these efforts to become involved as a citizen, the Jews continued to be considered alien. Rather than being welcomed as a compatriots they reviled as pretentious upstarts.

And so many Jews began to think that the only solution was to return to Palestine to found their own new nation of Israel. No longer cosmopolitan they would reclaim their homeland. Zionism would provide Jews with a nation wherein they were not alien (Miller& Ury, 2010).

These new developments made it even more difficult for the Jews who remained in the countries of their birth. Would a Jew support Israel against the interests of the country in which he lives? Zionism raised fears about the allegiance of the Jews, and provided an excuse to exile them from the nations they could not be part of.

So arose the idea that the Jews could never really be part of any non-Jewish nation. This concept was presented by T. S. Eliot (1934) in a series of talks about literary traditions. He describes “tradition:”

What I mean by tradition involves all those habitual actions, habits and customs, from the most significant religious rite to our conventional way of greeting a stranger, which represent the blood kinship of ‘the same people living in the same place.’ (p 18)

He goes on to suggest how tradition should be established and maintained:

What we can do is to use our minds, remembering that a tradition without intelligence is not worth having, to discover what is the best life for us not as a political abstraction, but as a particular people in a particular place; what in the past is worth preserving and what should be rejected; and what conditions, within our power to bring about, would foster the society that we desired. (p. 19)

And then he brings up something that is essential to any great tradition:

The population should be homogeneous; where two or more cultures exist in the same place they are likely either to be fiercely self-conscious or both to become adulterate. What is still more important is unity of religious background; and reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable. There must be a proper balance between urban and rural, industrial and  gricultural development. And a spirit of excessive tolerance is to be deprecated.

The remarks about the free-thinking Jews are strange and terrifying. They are completely out of context in a discussion of the literary traditions of the American South. They clearly reflect the antisemitism of the writer and of his time. In the years subsequent to Eliot’s book, the great liberal democracies of the world refused to accept Jews fleeing from the Nazi regime in Germany for fear that they would pollute their national identities.

Although nationalism fostered the idea of governance by the people, it also promoted war in the pursuit of a nation’s destiny. As Anderson (2016) has pointed out, one of the measures of nationalism’s success is how easily a people will lay down their lives to defend their country. Surely cosmopolitanism is a better ideal.

Conclusion

Human beings unfortunately seem to need to hate. We make an enemy of any one who is different from us. And so we revile those who gave us the Ten Commandments. We need to stop this senseless behavior. The main way forward is to learn abou those who are not us. This will broaden our understanding. With understanding will come tolerance and cooperation. And we should follow ideals that refuse to be limited to one faith or to one nation.

References

Anderson, B. R. O’G. (1983/2016). Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. Revised Edition. London: Verso.

Arendt, H. (1951, reprinted 1973). The origins of totalitarianism. New York:
Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich.

Bacon, G. (2003). “The House of Hannover”: Gezeirot Tah in modern Jewish historical writing.  Jewish History, 17, 179-206.

Bandura, A., Underwood, B., & Fromson, M. E. (1975). Disinhibition of aggression through diffusion of responsibility and dehumanization of victims. Journal of Research in Personality, 9, 253–269.

Barnavi, E. (2003). A historical atlas of the Jewish people: From the time of the patriarchs to the present. New York: Schocken.

Bauer, Y. (2001). A history of the Holocaust. Revised edition. New York:
Franklin Watts.

Baum, S. K. (2012). Antisemitism Explained. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Beck, A. T. (2002). Prisoners of hate. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 40, 209-216.

Beller, S. (2007). Antisemitism: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford
University Press

Bernstein, P. (1951). Jew-hate as a sociological problem. New York: Philosophical Library.

Brewer, M. B. (1999). The psychology of prejudice: Ingroup love or outgroup hate? Journal of Social Issues, 55, 429–435.

Carfield, A. M. (2002), The Soviet “Doctors’ Plot”—50 years on. BMJ,
325 (7378), 1487–9.

Chanes, J. A. (2004). Introduction and Overview. In Antisemitism: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO

Clermont Tonnerre, S. (1790) Translation of a speech, spoken by the Count Clermont Tonnere, Christmas-eve last: on the subject of admitting non-Catholics, comedians, and Jews, to all the privileges of citizens, according to the Declaration of rights. Available at Hathi Trust.

Crossan, J. D. (1995). Who killed Jesus? Exposing the roots of anti-semitism in the Gospel story of the death of Jesus. San Francisco: Harper

Eco, U. (1994). Six walks in the fictional woods. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard
University Press.

Eisner, W. (2005). The plot: The secret story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. New York: W.W. Norton.

Eliot, T. S. (1934). After strange gods: A primer of modern heresy. London: Faber and Faber.

Foxman, A. H. (2010). Jews and money: The story of a stereotype. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gelbin, C. S., & Gilman, S. L. (2017). Cosmopolitanisms and the Jews. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press

Goldstein, P (2012). A convenient hatred: The history of antisemitism. Brookline, MA: Facing History and Ourselves.

Graves, P. (1921) The truth about “The Protocols”: a literary forgery. The Times (London) August 16, 17, and 18. Reprinted in a pamphlet

Hagemeister, M. (2008). The Protocols of the Elders of Zion: Between history and fiction. New German Critique, 103, 83-95.

Hemon, A. (2008). The Lazarus project. New York: Riverhead Books

Lazare, B. (1903). Antisemitism, its history and causes: Translated from the French. New York: International Library Publishing Co.

Luther, M. (1543/1948) The Jews and Their Lies. Los Angeles: Christian Nationalist Crusade.

Marcus, J. R. (1938). The Jew in the medieval world: A source book: 315-1791. Cincinnati: Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

Marrus, M. R. (1987). The Holocaust in historyToronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys.

Mendes-Flohr, P. (1996). The emancipation of European Jewry. Why was it not self-evident? Studia Rosenthaliana, 30, 7-20.

Milgram, S. (1974) Obedience to authority: An experimental view. New York:
Harper.

Miller, M. L., & Ury, S. (2010) Cosmopolitanism: the end of Jewishness? European Review of History, 17, 337-359.

Morse, N. C., & Allport, F. H. (1952). The causation of anti-semitism: an investigation of seven hypotheses. Journal of Psychology 34, 197–233.

Nilus, S., (1906, translated by Marsden, V. E., 1922). Protocols of the learned elders of Zion. Reedy, West Virginia: Liberty Bell Publications

Penkower, M. N. (2004). The Kishinev Pogrom of 1903: A turning point in Jewish history. Modern Judaism, 24, 187–225,

Pinkus, B. (1988). The Jews of the Soviet Union: The history of a national minority. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Prager, D., & Telushkin, J. (1981, reprinted 2003). Why the Jews? The reason for antisemitism. Touchstone Books.

Sartre, J.-P. (translated by Becker, G. J., 1948). Anti-Semite and Jew. New York:
Schocken.

Stavrakopoulou, F. (2004). King Manasseh and child sacrifice: Biblical distortions of historical realities. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

Sternberg, R. J. (2003). A duplex theory of hate: Development and application to terrorism, massacres, and genocide. Review of General Psychology 7, 299-328.

Wagner, R. (1850, translated by William Ashton Ellis, 1894). Jews in Music




Hamlet’s Will

This posting considers Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The play has become as fascinating and as meaningful as any scripture (Bloom, 2003, p. 3). The character of its hero admits to numerous interpretations, both on the stage and in the critical literature.

Hamlet was the first clear representation of how human beings choose to act according to their own lights. We are not completely determined. Most of our actions follow willy-nilly from our past. Sometimes, however, we act as conscious agents: we consider the consequences of our actions, and choose the right act rather than the reflex.

I have discussed the concepts of freedom and determination in an earlier posting. These ideas are now considered in relation to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This is the longest of my posts so far. My apologies. Forgive me my obsessions.

Interpreting Hamlet

Everyone wants to play Hamlet. Each actor plays him differently; no one fully understands him. Anyone who feels that he has him down pat does well to remember Hamlets upbraiding of Guildenstern, who thinks he knows the prince, but acknowledges that he cannot play the recorder:

Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me! You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass: and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ; yet cannot you make it speak. ‘Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, yet you cannot play upon me.

Despite this warning,

They all want to play Hamlet.
They have not exactly seen their fathers killed
Nor their mothers in a frame-up to kill,
Nor an Ophelia lying with dust gagging the heart,
Not exactly the spinning circles of singing golden spiders,
Not exactly this have they got at nor the meaning of flowers—O flowers, flowers slung by a dancing girl—in the saddest play the inkfish, Shakespeare, ever wrote;
Yet they all want to play Hamlet because it is sad like all actors are sad and to stand by an open grave with a joker’s skull in the hand and then to say over slow and over slow wise, keen, beautiful words asking the heart that’s breaking, breaking,
This is something that calls and calls to their blood.
They are acting when they talk about it and they know it is acting to be particular about it and yet: They all want to play Hamlet.

Carl Sandburg (1922)

John Gielgud

John Gielgud

Sources

The legend of Hamlet originated in early Scandinavian history (Gollancz, 1926; Jenkins, 1982). The Prose Edda of Iceland briefly mentioned Hamlet in a description of what must have been a huge whirlpool, where nine maidens “in ages past ground Hamlet’s meal” (Gollancz, 1926, p. 1). This reference was interpreted by de Santillana and von Dechend in their 1969 book Hamlet’s Mill as a mythological description of the precession of the equinoxes – the universe rotating round the axis of the whirlpool. This is of little relevance to Shakespeare other than in the idea of divine providence that runs through the play: “The mills of the Gods grind slowly, but exceedingly fine” is not far from

There’s a divinity that shapes our ends
Rough hew them how we will.

Saxo_Grammaticus X B

 

The actual story of Prince Hamlet was first recounted in Latin in Saxo Grammaticus in the Historia Danica (written around 1200 CE). A major part of this story concerns how Hamlet (Amlethus) feigned imbecility so that his uncle, who had murdered Hamlet’s father and married his mother, would not believe that he posed any threat of revenge. Saxo’s story was retold in French by François de Belleforest in his Histoires Tragiques (1570). Shakespeare was likely familiar with this book. Many details of Shakespeare’s play – the murder of Hamlet’s father, the incestuous marriage, Hamlet’s antic disposition, the altered message that leads to the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – came from the early sources. The ghost, the players, Ophelia, and the gravedigger were new.

In Shakespeare’s adaptation, not everything makes sense. In the original story, it was common knowledge that Hamlet’s father had been murdered and his throne usurped. Hamlet’s feigned madness served a purpose. In Shakespeare’s play, no one knows that Claudius murdered Hamlet’s father until the Ghost returns and informs his son. As Greenblatt (2004, pp 305-307) points out Hamlet’s antic disposition not only does not provide any protection, but actually calls attention to him.

Shakespeare’s son, born in 1585, was named Hamnet, likely after Hamnet Sadler, one of Shakespeare’s friends in Stratford. However, the name may have caused Shakespeare to read Belleforest. Hamnet Shakespeare died in 1596, while his father was absent in London (Greenblatt, 2004a). Shakespeare’s father John died in September 1601. In James Joyce’s Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus commented on how William Shakespeare likely played the Ghost when Hamlet was first produced in early 1601 (see also Greenblatt, 2004a). In this role he was speaking as though he were his own dead or dying father to his own lost son:

Is it possible that player Shakespeare, a ghost by absence, and in the vesture of buried Denmark, a ghost by death, speaking his own words to his own son’s name (had Hamnet Shakespeare lived he would have been Prince Hamlet’s twin) is it possible, I want to know, or probable that he did not draw or foresee the logical conclusion of those premises: you are the dispossessed son: I am the murdered father: your mother is the guilty queen, Ann Shakespeare, born Hathaway? (Joyce, 1922, Episode 9, Scylla and Charybdis, pp. 186-7)

The ghost is one of the great scenes in the history of the theater. The ghost’s most memorable speech is his description of purgatory.

I am thy father’s spirit,
Doomed for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away.

hamlet ghost patrick stewart tennant production XB Patrick Stewart

As Greenblatt (2004b) has pointed out, Shakespeare’s father, John Shakespeare, was a likely a covert Catholic, and William was certainly aware of Catholic beliefs, if not himself a practising Catholic. Neither ghosts nor purgatory were acceptable beliefs in the Church of England. Nevertheless, old ideas persist, no matter what the law tells people to believe.

Texts

Shakespeare’s play was likely first performed in early 1601 (Jenkins, 1982; Thompson & Taylor, 2006a). However, another play about Hamlet had been produced on the London stages between 1594 and 1596 and perhaps even earlier. This is often referred to as the Ur-Hamlet. All that we know is that the play contained a ghost that urged Hamlet to revenge. The rest is speculation. Some have attributed this play to Thomas Kyd, who wrote another revenge play called The Spanish Tragedy, and who died in 1594. Others have wondered whether it was actually an early version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, one that he later revised (e.g., Bloom, 1998).

Three early versions of Hamlet were published: by itself in Quarto 1 (1603) and Quarto 2 (1604), and as part of the collected works in Folio 1 (1623) . Quarto 2 and Folio 1 are very similar and the Hamlet text we know today is based on either or both of these versions (Rosenbaum, 2002). Quarto 1 is very different from the other versions: it is much shorter, the scenes occur in a different order, and the poetry is banal. The Quarto 1 version of the most famous speech in the history of the theater:

To be, or not to be – ay, there’s the point.
To die, to sleep – is that all? Ay, all:
No, to sleep, to dream, – ay, marry, there it goes,
For in that dream of death, when we’re awaked
And borne before an everlasting judge,
From whence no passenger ever returned –
The undiscovered country, at whose sight
The happy smile, and the accursed damned.

holds no candle to the one we know:

To be, or not to be – that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them; to die: to sleep –
No more, and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished – to die: to sleep –;
To sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause

Exactly what this “bad quarto” represents is unknown. It may be the early play (the Ur-Hamlet) by Kyd and/or Shakespeare, a shortened acting version of the play for performance on tour or in small venues, or someone’s reminiscence of a performance published to make quick profit from a popular play. A short German version of Hamlet called Der Bestrafte Brudermord (“Fraticide Punished”) appears to have been performed in Germany in the 17th Century. This is more similar  to Quarto 1 than to the other English versions of Hamlet, but it may have been more closely related to the Ur-Hamlet. It has no soliloquies.

In recent years, several productions of the Quarto 1 Hamlet have been presented (Thompson & Taylor, 2006b). This version of the play is remarkable for its narrative drive. Some aspects of Quarto 1 have also been incorporated into other productions of Hamlet. Most particularly the “To be or not to be” scene is placed before rather than after the arrival of the players and Hamlet’s decision to present The Murder of Gonzago before the king. Gibson (1978, pp. 140-148) provides forceful arguments for this shift of scene. The thoughts in this soliloquy seem incongruous if Hamlet has already decided on a course of action. Gregory Doran’s memorable 1996 Hamlet with David Tennant and Patrick Stewart followed the sequence of Quarto 1.

Pennington (1996) thinks differently, and prefers the usual Quarto 2 sequence. Mott (1904) found that locating this speech after the decision to have the players perform for the king fits with Hamlet’s recurring pattern of resolution followed by inertia (or if you will, of first and second thoughts). Lyndsey Turner’s Hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch originally moved the soliloquy to the very beginning of the play (as prologue to the action rather than a part of it), but an outcry during previews caused her to move it back.

The Quarto 1 version does not support the idea of Hamlet as someone who vacillates – deciding what to do and then wondering whether this might not be worth it. His actions in Quarto 1 show a clear trajectory toward a purposeful end.

Plays within plays

Hamlet is intensely concerned with the workings of the theater. The first time we see him in Act I, Scene II, Hamlet is concerned by the need to be true to his feelings rather than to play a role. The speech turns on the very idea of what seems and what is true, what is enacted and what is real

These indeed ‘seem,’
For they are actions that a man might play,
But I have that within which passeth show,
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

penningtonXB

Michael Pennington

 

The play Hamlet comes to a head in Act III, Scene II with a performance before the court of The Murder of Gonzago. This play, which tells a story similar to what actually happened in Denmark, is used successfully to “catch the conscience of the king.”

 

However, this is not the only piece of theater within the play. When the players first arrive in Denmark, the lead player performs a speech from another play – probably a version of Dido and Aeneas. Christopher Marlowe had written such a play ten years before. However, the speech of the lead player uses words by Shakespeare rather than by Marlowe.

The player’s speech multiplies the levels of imagined reality. The audience watches an actor playing Hamlet as he listens to another actor playing an actor playing Aeneas as he recounts the events of the fall of Troy. The player’s speech presents the gist of Shakespeare’s play – Pyrrhus, the son of the slain Achilles, is taking revenge on the family of Paris, his father’s killer. The moment he is about to slay Priam, father of Paris, he pauses

                             For lo, his sword,
Which was declining on the milky head
Of reverend Priam, seemed i’ th’air to stick.
So, as a painted tyrant, Pyrrhus stood
And, like a neutral to his will and matter,
Did nothing.

So later will Hamlet pause and forego to kill Claudius.

Priam’s wife, Hecuba, rushes to her husband and her grief brings a tear to the eye of the first player. This leads Hamlet to consider why he is unable to feel even as much as an actor playing a part.

What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her? What would he do,
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have? He would drown the stage with tears
And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,
Make mad the guilty and appal the free,
Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed
The very faculties of eyes and ears. Yet I,
A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak,
Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,
And can say nothing. No, not for a king
Upon whose property and most dear life
A damned defeat was made.

Triggered by what he has heard and seen, Hamlet decides on a course of action. He will prove the truth of the murder recounted by the Ghost by watching Claudius’ response to the same murder played out on the stage. Theater will be truth’s touchstone.

The meaning of theater within Hamlet can also be consider in another way. Throughout the play, Hamlet decides what he should do by trying out a role within his mind. Acting can be either theatrical or behavioral (or both). Hamlet will allow himself to be moved just like the lead player. Imaginative role-playing is often how we make conscious decisions. We try out the consequences in our mind; then, if the envisioned future fits, we go there. Colin McGinn (2006) finds this an example of the “dramaturgical nature of the self:”

He exemplifies the transition from formless consciousness to personal determinacy, or the closest he can get to that. It is not that Hamlet’s character unfolds during the course of the play, with his “real self” finally revealed by the end; it is rather that he finally succeeds in forging a self from the dramatic materials at his disposal – he finds a part he can play. (p. 48)

The idea of theater pervades the ending of Shakespeare’s play. The dying Hamlet requests Horatio

If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story.

Then after Hamlet’s death, as Horatio begins to tell Fortinbras what has happened, it is as if the first presentation of the play Hamlet were beginning:

           give order that these bodies
High on a stage be placed to the view,
And let me speak to th’yet unknowing world
How these things came about

But let this same be presently performed,
Even while men’s minds are wild; lest more mischance
On plots and errors, happen.

It is impossible not to understand the theatrical connotations of “stage” and “performed.” As Critchley and Webster (2013, p. 226) point out, “Hamlet ends with the promise to perform the tragedy of Hamlet.” Olivier’s 1948 movie began with a brief scene showing Hamlet’s body being borne to a platform high upon the battlements of Elsinore.

Thinking Makes It So

The Renaissance brought back much of the classical literature, and with it a philosophy of life based on humanism rather than theism. Man once again became the measure of all things. This principle originally derived from the Greek Sophist philosopher Protagoras (490-420 BCE). The controversy that it had engendered between relativism and absolutism had during the Middle Ages been clearly resolved in terms of the latter. God determined what was right and man obeyed. Until the Renaissance.

montaigne XB

 

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) perhaps epitomizes the spirit of the Renaissance (Foglia, 2014). He read widely in the classics but he did not let his erudition stifle the freedom of his thought. His Essays are characterized by a profound humanism and a humble skepticism. He took as his motto the question “Que scay-je?” (What do I know?), and had it engraved on a medal with a weighing-balance. We must always carefully judge what we do and do not know. Montaigne’s essays were translated into English by John Florio and published in 1603.

Shakespeare certainly read Montaigne, probably in the Florio translation, and quoted him extensively in his 1610 play The Tempest. He may also have read some of Florio’s translations prior to their publication, and there are several instances in the 1601 Hamlet that recall the ideas and sometimes the wording of Montaigne (Hooker, 1902). One is Hamlet’s comment to Rosencrantz

                     for there is nothing
either good or bad, but thinking makes it so

which resonates with

If that which we call evill and torment, be neither torment nor evill, but that our fancie only gives it that qualitie, it is in us to change it. (Florio translation, Volume 2, Book I: Chapter XL That the taste of Goods or Evils doth greatly depend on the opinion we have of them.)

Even more striking are some of the parallels between “To be or not to be” and

Death may peradventure be a thing indifferent, happily a thing desirable. Yet is it to bee beleeved, that if it be a transmigration from one place to another, there is some amendement in going to live with so many worthy famous persons, that are deceased ; and be exempted from having any more to doe with wicked and corrupted Judges. If it be a consummation of ones being, it is also an amendement and entrance into a long and quiet night. Wee finde nothing so sweete in life, as a quiet rest and gentle sleepe, and without dreames. (Florio translation, Volume 5, Book III: Chapter XII Of Physiognomy)

In his lecture of Hamlet, Rossiter (1961, p. 186), suggested that Hamlet is “the first modern man.” What or who is modern clearly varies with what is being considered past and present. However, Rossiter is correct to consider Hamlet as modern rather than as medieval. Hamlet makes his own judgments about what he should do and calls into question all that he has been taught or told. Shakespeare allows the audience to follow his thinking through the soliloquies and asides that occur throughout the play. More so than ever before, we become privy to the thoughts of a person as he works through his motivations, doubts and fears. Hamlet follows the advice of Montaigne

It is no part of a well-grounded judgement simply to judge ourselves by our exterior actions: A man must thorowly sound himselfe, and dive into his heart, and there see by what wards or springs the motions stirre. (II: I Of the Inconstancie of our Actions)

In the soliloquies we can watch as Hamlet proceeds from despair to resolution. He is working things out for himself; he is not following the rules. Hamlet thinks and acts more like a human being than a hero.

Dalkey (1981) presents a tongue-in-cheek analysis of the “To be or not to be” speech using the principles of modern decision-analysis. Hamlet weighs the costs and benefits and comes up with the best course of action. The decision is to be. But then Hamlet also analyses how he came to this decision and wonders whether too much thinking actually has a negative effect on action.

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.

Hamlet is also aware of other difficulties. Even though we might decide how to act, we may not always maintain our resolution to act, and, even if we do, we cannot fully control the outcome of our actions. During The Murder of Gonzago, the player King responds to his wife’s insistence that she will not remarry when he dies

I do believe you think what now you speak;
But what we do determine, oft we break.
Purpose is but the slave to memory,
Of violent birth but poor validity,
Which now, the fruit unripe, sticks on the tree
But fall unshaken when they mellow be.

Our wills and fates do so contrary run
That our devices still are overthrown.
Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own

Bloom (1998, p 424) wonders whether this speech may have represented the lines that Hamlet asked to be inserted in the original play. The speech is likely intended for his mother, who may have become unwittingly entrammeled in Claudius’ evil.

Being

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Kenneth Branagh

 

“To be or not to be” is the most famous speech in all literature. Hamlet is considering the essential problem of being human – how to act in a life often characterized by suffering and always leading to death. His words portray “the exaltation of mind … as this grandest of consciousnesses overhears its own cognitive music” (Bloom, 2003, p 36).

Yet the speech has been interpreted in many different ways (summarised by Petronella, 1974, and Jenkins, 1982, pp 484-493). A common interpretation is that Hamlet is deciding whether or not to commit suicide (e.g., Bradley, 1905; Knight, 1935, p 127):

He is meditating on suicide; and he finds that what stands in the way of it, and counterbalances its infinite attraction, is not any thought of a sacred unaccomplished duty, but the doubt, quite irrelevant to that issue, whether it is not ignoble in the mind to end its misery, and, still more, whether death would end it. (Bradley, 1905, p 132).

However, the actual words seem far more generalized. As Pennington (1996, p. 81) points out

There is no personal pronoun at all in its thirty-five lines, so it is in a sense drained of Hamlet himself: although the cap fits, it also stands free of him as pure human analysis.

The speech can therefore be considered as a meditation on the human condition:

The question, then (crudely paraphrased as ‘Is life worth living?’) is essentially whether, in the light of what being comprises (in the condition of human life as the speaker sees it and represents it in what follows) it is preferable to have it or not. (Jenkins, 1982, p 487).

A third approach to Hamlet’s speech relates it to Hamlet’s decision to revenge his father’s death. What is to be or not to be is the act of killing Claudius. Hamlet’s decision revolves upon whether this is right or not, given that one may in the afterlife be damned by sin:

Thus the complete development of the soliloquy shows that the full implication of “To be, or not to be” is not a simple choice between passive endurance and vitally destructive activity, as at first appears, a choice that Hamlet, who has no fear of death itself, could make unhesitatingly; but that the choice is rather between a distasteful passive endurance and a destructive activity that may also bring the stain of deadly sin. (Richards, 1933, p. 757).

This interpretation may fit with the mention of “conscience” and “resolution” at the end of the speech. However, it does not really ring true with Hamlet’s view of the afterlife, which he simply describes as “undiscover’d.”

                     Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?

Hamlet does not fear eternal damnation, he is just uncertain about whether the afterlife might indeed be worse than the present life. He is skeptical about what he has been taught. In those days, being from Wittenberg was probably akin to being from Missouri in our day.

A final interpretation turns on the fact that Hamlet’s speech is not a soliloquy. Hamlet is being overheard by Claudius and Polonius. If Hamlet is also aware of this, as well he might be, then the speech may be part of his efforts to convince Claudius that he is not a threat. Hamlet may be feigning both melancholy thoughts of suicide and a total lack of resolution.

Hamlet pretends to speak to himself but actually intends the speech itself or an account of it to reach the ears of Claudius in order to mislead his enemy about his state of mind. (Hirsh, 2010, p 34)

However, if Hamlet were indeed feigning, he would likely have been far more illogical in his thinking. His words convey more poetic insight than antic disposition.

So I think that Hamlet in this speech is indeed considering the human condition. The habit of his  mind is to interprets the events of the moment according to eternal principles. The student from Wittenberg is an inveterate philosopher. Hamlet’s meditation on the skull of Yorick shows a similar way of thinking..

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Innokenti Smoktunovsky in Kozintsev’s Movie

Revenge Delayed

One common view of Hamlet is that he cannot move from thought to action. He is unable to take revenge on Claudius because he worries too much about his motives and the consequences. This was the interpretation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge in a lecture given in 1819:

In Hamlet he [Shakespeare] seems to have wished to exemplify the moral necessity of a due balance between our attention to the objects of our senses, and our meditation on the workings of our minds,—an equilibrium between the real and the imaginary worlds. In Hamlet this balance is disturbed: his thoughts, and the images of his fancy, are far more vivid than his actual perceptions, and his very perceptions, instantly passing through the medium of his contemplations, acquire, as they pass, a form and a colour not naturally their own. Hence we see a great, an almost enormous, intellectual activity, and a proportionate aversion to real action, consequent upon it, with all its symptoms and accompanying qualities. This character Shakespeare places in circumstances, under which it is obliged to act on the spur of the moment:—Hamlet is brave and careless of death; but he vacillates from sensibility, and procrastinates from thought, and loses the power of action in the energy of resolve. (Coleridge, 1907, pp 136-137)

A variant of this interpretation is that Hamlet is too sensitive and inward to cope with the rough needs of the external world. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe gives this idea to his character Wilhelm Meister, who focuses on Hamlet’s words at the end of Act I and senses that the prince cannot cope with the demands made by his ghostly father:

The time is out of joint: O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!

In these words, I imagine, will be found the key to Hamlet’s whole procedure. To me it is clear that Shakespeare meant, in the present case, to represent the effects of a great action laid upon a soul unfit for the performance of it. In this view the whole piece seems to me to be composed. There is an oak-tree planted in a costly jar, which should have borne only pleasant flowers in its bosom; the roots expand, the jar is shivered.

A lovely, pure, noble, and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve which forms a hero, sinks beneath a burden which it cannot bear and must not cast away. All duties are holy for him; the present is too hard. Impossibilities have been required of him, not in themselves impossibilities, but such for him. He winds, and turns, and torments himself; he advances and recoils; is ever put in mind, ever puts himself in mind; at last does all but lose his purpose from his thoughts; yet still without recovering his peace of mind. (Goethe, 1796, Book IV Chapter 13, pp 304-5)

Yet de Grazia (2007) points out that Hamlet’s procrastination only became a major part of the critical literature after the late 18th Century. Before then no one had mentioned the delay let alone made it the touchstone of the play. There is a clear trajectory linking the death of Hamlet’s father, the apparition of the Ghost, the decision of Hamlet to test the Ghost’s claim by putting on a play that represents the murder, and Hamlet’s conclusion that Claudius is indeed guilty. Hamlet is not lacking in will: he simply subjects it to careful scrutiny.

A brief pause occurs during the “To be or not to be” soliloquy and, as previously mentioned, even that might be solved by placing it in the order of the First Quarto: before rather than after the players arrive. Or by considering it as a moment of philosophical reflection prior to an already determined action.

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David Tennant and Patrick Stewart

 

 

 

The major source of the supposed delay occurs when Hamlet comes upon the solitary Claudius at prayer – “Now might I do it pat …” Yet Hamlet worries that he might send the repentant Claudius to Heaven, and does it not:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Up, sword, and know thou a more horrid hent:
When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,
Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed;
At gaming, a-swearing, or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in’t;
Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,
And that his soul may be as damn’d and black
As hell, whereto it goes. (Act III: Scene 3)

This speech was often considered shocking. Many of the audience could not accept that Hamlet really meant to send Claudius to eternal damnation. De Grazia (2007, p 159) quotes Samuel Johnson who considered the speech “too horrible to be read or to be uttered.” Human justice could take away the mortal life, but should not damn the soul to everlasting perdition.

Hamlet’s desire in the prayer scene to damn a soul to eternal pain is the most extreme form of evil imaginable in a society that gave even its most heinous felons the opportunity to repent before execution. (De Grazia, 2007, p. 188)

De Grazia reviews the various ways we have tried to reconcile our romantic concept of Hamlet as a sweet and thoughtful prince with this terrible speech. A simple way is to state that Hamlet does not really mean what he is saying. Finding himself unable to kill Claudius, he comes up with a plausible excuse for delaying his revenge. Another view might be that the speech is a way for Hamlet’s consciousness to prevent the deep hatred in his unconsciousness from taking control of his actions. He subdues the unconscious with a rationalization that revenge will be better at another time. In either of these interpretations, Hamlet is deceiving himself.

Hamlet certainly practises deception. He puts “an antic disposition on” to convince Claudius that he is too foolish to be considered dangerous. Yet Hamlet does not deceive himself. In his soliloquies he seeks to understand what he should do. He looks for reasons, not for rationalizations.

So I think we should take Hamlet’s speech about damning Claudius at face-value. Hamlet is not kind; he cruelly rejects Ophelia; he rashly kills Polonius; he has no sympathy for his mother; he callously sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths. There is a harshness rather than a gentleness at his core. De Grazia even wonders whether there is something demonic about Hamlet in the latter parts of the play. Perhaps Shakespeare is demonstrating that even the most self-reflective of heroes is not immune to cruelty. Hamlet cannot stop the general corruption in Denmark without becoming infected by its evil.

Hamlet does ultimately take his revenge. Claudius has no time for repentance. And Hamlet dies, victim of the evil that he has fought against.

Tragedy

A pervasive idea is that tragedy results from the downfall and death of a great man that is mainly due to a moral defect in his character – the “tragic flaw.” This concept derived from Aristotle’s proposal that the key to tragedy was hamartia. However, the Greek word means “missing the mark” – an error or failing that may or may not be related to the tragic hero (Golden, 1978). In the Greek New Testament hamartia was translated as “sin,” in the sense of general failure rather specific wrongdoing.

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Laurence Olivier

The concept of the tragic flaw may not be helpful in understanding Hamlet. To consider the hero’s flaw as the mainspring of the tragedy “leads to a narrowing of scope and significance which is stultifying and crippling” (Hyde, 1963). Perhaps the most outrageous example of stupid simplification is the voice-over at the beginning of Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film: “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.” This was completely out of keeping not only with Shakespeare’s play but also with Olivier’s portrayal, which showed Hamlet as decisive and active.

Although Bradley (1905) supported the idea of the tragic flaw as the key to tragedy, he also perceived other contributing factors. In particular “men may start a course of events but can neither calculate nor control it” (p. 9). We may be unable to predict what happens when we decide to act. This sounds very similar to the true meaning of hamartia: we may miss the mark.

Kitto (1960) proposed that Hamlet shows many similarities to the classic Greek tragedies. Like them, Shakespeare’s play has characteristics of a religious drama. The corruption of Claudius infects everyone. Gertrude is seduced; Polonius becomes Claudius’ spy; Ophelia is convinced to act as bait for so that Hamlet may be spied upon; Laertes is co-opted to the murder of Hamlet. “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” and needs to be cleansed away:

[T]here is an overruling Providence which, though it will not intervene to save Hamlet, does intervene to defeat Claudius, and does guide events to a consummation in which evil frustrates itself, even though it destroys innocents by the way. (Kitto, 1960, p 321).

Hamlet considers the actions of Providence at the beginning of the play’s final scene. As well as telling Horatio of the “divinity that shapes our ends,” Hamlet decides to engage in the proposed duel with Laertes despite his forebodings:

We defy augury: there is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all, since no man of aught he leaves knows what is’t to leave betimes. Let be.

These comments can be understood in two ways. Hamlet may be recognizing that he cannot fully control what happens, and that he must believe that what will happen will be good. Or perhaps Hamlet is losing his nerve, giving up control and letting events unfold without him.

By the end of the play those attainted with corruption have died, and a new government is in place in Denmark. Unfortunately, Providence has not really provided for those who were most innocent, such as Ophelia, or those who began in innocence, such as Hamlet. Providence may work for the general good but it is not specially concerned with individuals. Sparrows die.

Shakespeare differs from the Greeks in questioning that all is necessarily for the good. At the end of the play, Denmark has been freed from Claudius, but we are far from sure that country under Fortinbras will be a better place.

Nevertheless, Hamlet demonstrates the need to rid society of corruption, regardless of the personal cost. This need is general to all human societies. We should not stand by and let evil spread:

Hamlet is a tocsin that awakens the conscience. (Kozintsev, 1966, p 174)

The real tragedy of Hamlet is that Denmark did not make him king. Denmark settled for Claudius, and wound up with Fortinbras. Shakespeare explains this clearly in the final speech of the play:

                         Let four captains
Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage,
For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have prov’d most royal

Envoi

Boris Pasternak

Boris Pasternak

 

Hamlet has become a part of our life. In a sense we all play this role. We may not face the same problems that Hamlet encountered. Yet we each have our own decisions to make, and their outcomes will prove some mixture of what we will to occur and what happens nevertheless. Boris Pasternak’s character Doctor Zhivago wrote a poem about playing Hamlet. Here again are many levels: Pasternak conceives of Zhivago who writes a poem about an actor playing Hamlet. This poem was recited at Pasternak’s funeral despite government efforts to prevent any eulogies (Ivinskaya, 1978, p 331). The superb translation is by Ann Pasternak Slater, the novelist’s niece.

The murmurs ebb; onto the stage I enter.
I am trying, standing in the door,
To discover in the distant echoes
What the coming years may hold in store.

The nocturnal darkness with a thousand
Binoculars is focused onto me.
Take away this cup, O Abba, Father,
Everything is possible to thee.

I am fond of this thy stubborn project,
And to play my part I am content.
But another drama is in progress,
And, this once, O let me be exempt.

But the plan of action is determined,
And the end irrevocably sealed.
I am alone; all round me drowns in falsehood:
Life is not a walk across a field.

Russia in the time of Stalin was strikingly similar to Denmark in the time of Claudius. Violence pervaded all society; everyone was under surveillance. Pasternak translated Hamlet into Russian in 1939, at a time of the Great Terror when he was unable to write poetry. His translation was used for the 1964 Kozintsev movie of the play. Pasternak’s view was that Hamlet took on the “role of judge in his own time and servant of the future” (Pasternak, 1959, p 131). This was Hamlet’s legacy.

References

Bradley, A. C. (1905/1961). Shakespearean tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. London: Macmillan. Available at arkiv.org

Bloom, H. (1998). Shakespeare: The invention of the human. New York: Riverhead Books.

Bloom, H. (2003). Hamlet: Poem unlimited. New York: Riverhead Books.

Coleridge, S. T. (1907). Coleridge’s essays & lectures on Shakespeare: & some other old poets & dramatists. London: J.M. Dent. Available

Critchley, S., & Webster, J. (2013). Stay, illusion! The Hamlet doctrine. New York: Pantheon Books (Random House).

Dalkey, N. C. (1981). A case study of a decision analysis: Hamlet’s soliloquy. Interfaces, 11(5), 45-49.

Dorani, G. (1996/2010) Hamlet. Royal Shakespeare Company. Warner Home Video.

Foglia, M. (2014) Michel de Montaigne, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Gibson, W. (1978). Shakespeare’s game. New York: Atheneum.

von Goethe, J. W. (1796, translated by T. Carlyle, 1824, reprinted 1901). Wilhelm Meister’s apprenticeship. Boston: F.A. Niccolls & Co.

Golden, L. (1978). Hamartia, ate, and Oedipus. Classical World, 72, 3–12.

Gollancz, I. (1926). The sources of Hamlet with an essay on the legend. London: Oxford University Press.

De Grazia. M. (2007). Hamlet without Hamlet. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Greenblatt, S. (2004a). The death of Hamnet and the making of Hamlet. N.Y. Review of Books, (21 October 2004) 51.16.

Greenblatt, S. (2004b). Will in the world: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare. New York: Norton.

Hirsh, J. (2010). The “To be, or not to be” speech: evidence, conventional wisdom, and the editing of “Hamlet.” Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England, 23, 34-62.

Hooker, E. R. (1902). The relation of Shakespeare to Montaigne. Publications of the Modern Language Association (PMLA), 17, 312-366.

Hyde, I. (1963). The tragic flaw: is it a tragic error? Modern Language Review, 58, 321-325.

Ivinskaya, O. (translated by M. Hayward, 1978). A captive of time: my years with Pasternak London: Collins & Harvill.

Jenkins, H. (Ed.) (1982/2003). Shakespeare, W. Hamlet. London: Arden Shakespeare.

Joyce, J. (1922/1946). Ulysses. New York: Random House.

Kitto, H. D. F. (1960). Form and meaning in drama: A study of six Greek plays and of Hamlet. London: Methuen.

Kozintsev, G. M. (1964/2006). Hamlet. Facets Video.

Kozintsev, G. M. (translated by J. Vining, 1966).Shakespeare; time and conscience. New York: Hill and Wang.

McGinn, C. (2006). Shakespeare’s philosophy: Discovering the meaning behind the plays. New York: HarperCollins.

de Montaigne, M. (1580-83, translated by J. Florio, 1603/1891). Essayes. Volumes 1-6 London: Gibbings. Available at Internet Archive: Vol 2, Vol 3 and Vol 6 are quoted.

Olivier, L. (1948/2006). Hamlet. Criterion Collection.  (Text used in the movie is documented in Olivier, L., Furse, R., & Shakespeare, W. (1948). Hamlet. London: B. Pollock.)

Pasternak, B. L. (1959). I remember: Sketch for an autobiography. New York: Pantheon (includes an essay on Translating Shakespeare).

Pennington, M. (1996). Hamlet: a user’s guide. London: Nick Hern Books.

Petronella, V. F. (1974). Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy: Once more unto the breach. Studies in Philology, 71, 72-88.

Richards, I. T. (1933). The meaning of Hamlet’s Soliloquy Publications of the Modern Language Association (PMLA), 48, 741-766.

Rosenbaum, R. (2002). Shakespeare in rewrite. New Yorker. (13 May, 2002) 68-77.

Rossiter, A. P. (Ed. G. Storey, 1962). Angel with horns and other Shakespeare lectures. London: Longmans.

de Santillana, G., & von Dechend, H. (1969). Hamlet’s mill; an essay on myth and the frame of time. Boston: Gambit.

Thompson, A., & Taylor, N. (Eds.) (2006a). Shakespeare, W. Hamlet. London: Arden Shakespeare.

Thompson, A., & Taylor, N. (Eds.) (2006b). Shakespeare, W. Hamlet: The texts of 1603 and 1623. London: Arden Shakespeare.

Wilson, J. D. (1935). What happens in Hamlet. Cambridge, U. K.: University Press.

 

 




Person and Memory

Although psychology has become an established science, it still has deep connections to philosophy. This is particularly true when we consider the concept of person that is at the foundation of all psychology. A person exists (and persists) through the processes of consciousness and memory. The following photograph (by Marie-Lan Nguyen) shows a Roman statue of Clio, the muse of history, from the Museo Pio Clementino of the Vatican. Clio records what is happening and recalls what has happened. History ensures that the past persists. The past helps us to understand the present.

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Clio, Museo Pio Clementino

The statue derives from the 2nd century CE. Its head and body were originally from different statues. Our knowledge of the person comes from both psychology and philosophy. This posting looks at memory and person from these two viewpoints. The photograph has been modified to provide more space on the statue’s right. There is much we do not know.

From soul to person

The philosophers of the Enlightenment doubted the existence of the soul. Thoughts and sensations were all that could be directly experienced. These required a subject to experience them. In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke (1689) proposed the terms “self” and “person” for this subject. A person is

a thinking intelligent being, that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself, as itself, the same thinking thing in different times and places; which it does only by that consciousness which is inseparable from thinking, and, as it seems to me, essential to it; it being impossible for anyone to perceive, without perceiving that he does perceive. (Book II, Chapter 27)

As well as consciousness, the idea of person required a memory of one’s past thoughts and actions. Consciousness of both past and present could then support the identity of the person over time. Without memory, each moment of experience would require a different subject:

For since consciousness always accompanies thinking, and it is that which makes everyone to be what he calls self, and thereby distinguishes himself from all other thinking things; in this, alone, consists personal identity, i. e. the sameness of a rational being; and as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards, to any past action or thought, so far reaches the identity of that person; it is the same self now, it was then; and it is by the same self with this present one, that now reflects on it, that that action was done. (Book II, Chapter 27)

Locke considered memory as a simple storehouse of perceptions that could be revived at a later time

this laying up of our ideas in the repository of the memory signifies no more but this, that the mind has a power in many cases to revive perceptions which it has once had, with this additional perception annexed to them, that it has had them before. (Book II, Chapter 10).

In this way, Locke considered the human mind as essentially passive: a clean slate (tabula rasa) upon which the world writes through the process of sensation, and an untended warehouse of slowly fading messages from the past.

Personhood clearly requires both consciousness and memory but the relationships are not simple (Behan, 1979). Am I a person when I am unconscious? Am I the same person as the two-year old child who grew up to be me, but whose experiences I can no longer remember? Personal identity must depend on physical as well as psychological continuity (Parfit, 1984; Olsen, 2010). In modern science we might also consider genetic continuity: over time our cells may change but our genes remain the same.

The self as described by the philosophers of the Enlightenment had a definitely moral aspect. Locke proposed that conscious memory must take responsibility for a person’s past actions. The self

extends itself beyond present existence to what is past, only by consciousness,—whereby it becomes concerned and accountable; owns and imputes to itself past actions, just upon the same ground and for the same reason as it does the present. (Book II, Chapter 27).

Whereas the soul had existed in relation to God, the person was much more closely related to society. The Enlightenment was far more concerned with the rights and duties than with sin and salvation. Our modern concept of the person continues this idea of individual responsibility:

A person is a being with a certain moral status, or a bearer of rights … a being who has a sense of self, has a notion of the future and the past, can hold values, make choices; in short can adopt life-plans … a being with his own point of view on things … a being who can be addressed, and who can reply … a ‘respondent.’. (Taylor, 1985, p. 97)

Active Attention

In his Essay on Human Understanding, written in reply to Locke’s essay, Condillac (1746, reviewed by Kaitaro, 2007) pointed out that perception and memory are not simply passive responses to incoming sensation. Attention selects which or our sensations are perceived and remembered, and finds relations among these sensations. Furthermore, attention is purposeful, acting according to our needs.

The association of several ideas can only be caused by the attention which we have given them when they occurred together: as well, things only attract our attention because of their relation to our temperament, passions and state of mind, or, in a word, our need. (Condillac, 1746, Part I, Section II, Chapter 3)

One of the ideas that the human mind creates is that of the self. Condillac proposed that this comes about through a process that compares present perceptions with memories of past perceptions:

When objects attract our attention, the perceptions that they cause are associated with a feeling of self … Consciousness not only is aware of our perceptions but also, if these repeat, informs us that we have already experienced them, and tells us how, despite their variety and succession, they relate to … a being that is always the same. … Without what I call reminiscence, each moment of our life would appear as the first in our existence, and our consciousness would never extend beyond our first perception. (Condillac, 1746, Part I, Section II, Chapter 1)

However, although Condillac considered consciousness as an active process, he came to think that this activity itself could be derived from sensation. In his later book, Treatise on Sensations (Condillac, 1754, discussed in Falkenstein, 2010), he attempted to see how all of our thinking could come from sensation, using the concept of a statue that is sequentially stimulated in each modality. Though he disagreed with Locke about the passivity of the mind, he still decided that active mental processes could be derived from experience. Sensation teaches us to think. Nothing is innate.

However, as pointed out by Donald (2001), Condillac’s statue cannot develop in this way unless it has from the beginning the ability to be conscious of the various sensations that it experiences. Furthermore, the statue would have to be endowed with some curiosity or there would be no motive for it to make any associations between the different sensations that it experiences.

Nevertheless, by the end of the book Condillac’s statue has developed attention, perceptions, associations, memory and desire. Condillac appears to be stating that this statue is equivalent to a human being. Yet, although it has some idea of its own body, the statue does not have any clear understanding of itself. The statue’s final soliloquy includes the haunting comment:

I see myself, I touch myself, in a word, I sense myself, but I do not know what I am. (Condillac, 1754, Part IV, Chapter 8)

This absence of any self-understanding may be related to the statue’s lack of any social experience. Condillac provided it with sensations of itself and of objects, but not of other perssons. The human concept of the self develops at the same time as the concept that there are other persons in the world each with its own consciousness and will (Wellman, 2011).

Cognitive Psychology

Competing claims that human mental processes were passive or active played themselves out again in the 20th Century. Behaviorists proposed that all our actions derive from the stimuli that we receive. At mid-century, however, a cognitive revolution occurred: psychologists decided that human perception is an intensely active process, and that memory is far more complicated than a simple repository of experience.

Human memory is presently conceived as having short and long durations. Short-term memories include sensory stores which serve to register modality-specific incoming information, and working memory which selects information from these stores, and transforms it into action according to current needs and goals. Working memory has access to learned procedures and concepts that are maintained in long term memory, and uses various subsidiary stores, such as the phonological loop and the visuo-spatial scratchpad, to hold information while it operates.

The diagram below shows the general structure of human information processing, with the different human memories shown in separate boxes. Current cognitive psychology considers these memories as residing in neuronal networks that are far more widespread and overlapping than the diagram suggests. Attention is the process that selects what information is transferred into and out of working memory.

cognitive psychology color 2015

Long-term memory is what is usually considered as “memory” in everyday speech. Cognitive psychology divides this into explicit and implicit, depending upon whether the recalled information is accessible to consciousness. This distinction is also described as declarative vs. procedural. The memory of how to ride a bike is implicit/procedural; the memory of the capital city of France is explicit/declarative.

Endel Tulving (1972, 1983, 2002) proposed that explicit memory is further divided into two types: semantic and episodic. Semantic memory is the memory for facts. Such facts are recalled without any relation to our experience when we initially learned them. Episodic memories are recalled together with aspects of what we experienced when they were initially stored into memory, i. e., they are recalled as part of an episode in our life. The archtypical episodic memory is that of one’s first kiss, a memory that usually cannot be recalled without re-experiencing many attendant sensations and emotions. The following table (modified and abridged from Tulving, 1983, p. 35) gives some of the distinctions between the two types of memory:

Feature                            Episodic                       Semantic
Source                              sensation                       comprehension
Units                                  events, episodes           facts, ideas
Organization                      temporal                        conceptual
Reference                          self                                universe
Veridicality                         personal belief               social acceptance
Registration                       experiential                    symbolic
Access                               deliberate                      automatic
Retrieval queries                when? where?               what?
Recalled information          personal past                 facts
Reported experience         remember                      know

Episodic memories are associated with a special type of consciousness that Tulving and his colleagues have called “autonoetic” (Wheeler et al., 1997). This allows us to re-experience events from the past without our becoming confused with our present experience. Remembering something is similar to the original experience but is clearly not the same. Autonoetic consciousness provides us with the ability for “mental time travel.” Moreover, as well as letting us remember our past, it allows us to experience what might happen to us in the future.

One experimental technique for evaluating episodic memory involves having subjects recall previously learned associations. They are then asked whether they “remember” these items (on the basis that they also recall what happened when the association was studied), or simply “know” the association (reviewed by Tulving, 2002). Remembered information has the “flavor” of the original experience, whereas known information is simply factual. However, although most subjects can make the remember/know distinction, its meaning is not clear. The “remember” judgment may possibly indicate a larger amount of information or its greater vividness rather than (or in addition to) a different type of recollection.

Imaging studies have shown that recalling episodic memories activates different brain regions than recalling semantic memories. Recalling episodic memories involves the right frontal region of the brain, whereas recalling semantic memories is more left frontal (Tulving et al., 1994; Cabeza et al., 1997). Furthermore, a patient with difficulty in recalling episodic memories showed a focal lesion in the right frontal region (Levine et al., 1998).

Recent imaging studies have implicated that the recall of episodic information involves complex interactions between several different regions of the brain, most particularly the hippocampi, the anterior prefrontal cortex and the left parietal cortex (Vilberg & Rugg, 2009; Rugg and Vilberg, 2013).

Tulving considered episodic memory to be a special development in human beings. Animals

have minds, they are conscious of their world, and they rely as much on learning and memory in acquiring the skills needed for survival as we do … but they do not seem to have the same kind of ability humans do to travel back in time in their own minds (Tulving 2002).

However, human semantic memory, organized in large part through language, is also quite distinct from the memory that animals have for facts. Since it carries with it human culture, art, science, and history, our semantic memories are every bit as special as our memories of personal experience.

Everything that we learn occurs initially part of a subjective experience. How experience becomes memory is not clear. Semantic memories may derive from episodic memories after they have been separated from their personal associations through processes such as inference, abstraction, generalization or consolidation. However, it is also possible that the initial experience is stored simultaneously in the two types of memory.

Autobiographical Memory

Autobiographical memory is composed of both semantic and episodic elements (Conway & Pleydell-Pearce, 2000; Renoult et al., 2012). I can recall the names of my family members, the important dates of my life (birth, graduation, marriage), and the sequence of places where I have lived or worked in much the same way that I recall the capitals of countries. Yet I can also recall my actual experiences during my wedding or my first day at work. The story of my life can thus be viewed at different levels: in semantic outline or episodic detail.

Episodic memories are generally organized around the idea of a person that persists from one episode to the next (Picton, 2012). As well as linking together what has happened to us into a personal history, our autobiographical memory also contains explanations for why we did what we did. Thus we come to know how we tend to respond in certain situations, what needs and desires govern our actions, and what goals we might be aiming for. Thus we develop a sense of self:

When it comes to our identities, narrative is not only about self, but is rather in some profound way a constituent part of self (Eakin, 2008, p. 2).

This psychological concept of the person shows some similarities to the existentialist view of the man as not being endowed with a soul but as having to create one out of nothing:

Freedom is precisely the nothingness which is made to be at the heart of man and which forces human reality to make itself instead of to be. As we have seen, for human reality, to be is to choose oneself; nothing comes to it from the outside or from within which it can receive or accept. Without any help whatsoever, it is entirely abandoned to the intolerable necessity of making itself be. (Sartre, 1943/1995, p. 485, translation Barnes)

We can be quite creative in how we put together our personal story:

we are all virtuoso novelists, who find ourselves engaged in all sorts of behavior, more or less unified, but sometimes disunified, and we always put the best ‘faces’ on it we can. We try to make all of our material cohere into a single good story. And that story is our autobiography. The chief fictional character at the center of that autobiography is one’s self. (Dennett, 1992).

Unfortunately, we are sometimes unreliable narrators. When we are happy we can see our lives as the successful outcome of our intelligence, charm and drive. When we are depressed we may misperceive what has happened and exaggerate our personal failures. A good friend or a psychotherapist can help us by listening to our story, pointing out its inconsistencies, and suggesting different interpretations. They help us to be honest with ourselves (Coetzee & Kurtz, 2015). If our version of our life history is more fiction than fact, we can have great difficulty handling the present or coping with the future.

The concept of a personal narrative is often associated with morality. Should we not be responsible for the story of our life in some manner? “Accountable” was the word used by Locke in his discussion of the person. Charles Taylor remarks

[I]n order to make minimal sense of our lives, in order to have an identity, we need an orientation to the good, which means some sense of qualitative discrimination, of the incomparably higher. Now we see that this sense of the good has to be woven into my understanding of my life as an unfolding story. (Taylor, 1989, p. 47)

Alasdair MacIntyre (1984) has also considered personal identity and its relation to ethics:

In what does the unity of an individual life consist? The answer is that its unity is the unity of a narrative embodied in a single life. To ask ‘What is the good for me?’ is to ask how best I might live out that unity and bring it to completion. (MacIntyre, 1984, p. 218)

He goes on to describe the personal narrative in terms of a “quest” for the good. We seek to go from the as yet unfulfilled present person to a future person as he could be if he were to realize his essential nature (MacIntyre, 1984, p. 52).

Memory Style

Recent studies have indicated that some subjects have autobiographical memories that are more highly developed than normal subjects (Leport et al., 2012). These patients can recall much more about what occurred during their lives than normal subjects. When prompted by specific dates they can often recall exactly what they were doing and what was happening in the world. These subjects organized their autobiography using a strict chronological ordering.

Other subjects have a much less developed autobiographical memory than normal (Palombo et al., 2015). These subjects experience much less episodic detail when they recall their past particularly from childhood and adolescence. For the more recent past, the subjects appear to compensate, perhaps by using semantic memory to encode what others would maintain as episodic details. During remember/know recognition-testing, the subjects reported remember judgments much less frequently than control subjects. It is as though they have some deficit in either making or recalling episodic memories. However, it is difficult to evaluate this by asking them about their experience. This would be like asking a color-blind patient to describe his experience of red. On physiological testing, the subjects showed reduced activation in the brain regions normally associated with episodic recall.

These two groups of subjects may represent the limits of normal variability in memory styles. In this regard it is interesting to note some recent contributions from philosophy. Galen Strawson (2004, 2012) has proposed that there are two kinds of self-experience: diachronic and episodic. A diachronic (from the Greek dia through and chronos time) person considers himself or herself as an entity that has persisted from past to present and that will continue into the future. Most diachronic persons consider their past in terms of a personal narrative. An episodic (from the Greek epi in addition and eisodos entrance) person is one who has little or no sense of a past or future identity, and little concern with his or her life story. The memory of the personal past is discontinuous and divorced from the present self. Strawson considers himself as episodic:

I have a past, like any human being, and I know perfectly well that I have a past. I have a respectable amount of factual knowledge about it, and I also remember some of my past experiences ‘from the inside’, as philosophers say. And yet I have absolutely no sense of my life as a narrative with form, or indeed as a narrative without form. Absolutely none. Nor do I have any great or special interest in my past. Nor do I have a great deal of concern for my future. (Strawson, 2004, p. 433)

Strawson’s use of “episodic” is different (indeed almost the opposite) from Tulving’s. Strawson uses it to describe a person who considers the past (and future) as having little relation to the present, whereas Tulving uses it to describe the experiential quality of remembering. The term “episodic” has been used with even other meanings: Donald (2001, pp. 200-202) uses it to describe the temporal organization of experience into meaningful events.

Strawson proposes that episodic persons are not that uncommon. Since such persons would generally not write autobiographies, the historical record may be biased towards the diachronic. Strawson nevertheless quotes others who share his episodic nature. Goronwy Rees (1961) entitled his autobiography A Bundle of Sensations. The title makes allusion to David Hume, who was himself sceptical about the possibility of any person or perceiving subject. He considered each of us to be

nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement. Our eyes cannot turn in their sockets without varying our perceptions. Our thought is still more variable than our sight; and all our other senses and faculties contribute to this change; nor is there any single power of the soul, which remains unalterably the same, perhaps for one moment. (Hume, 1738, Book I Part IV Section VI)

Strawson’s main point, however, is to criticize the idea that a personal narrative is essential to moral development. Indeed because of the way that it is continually revised, a deeply experienced personal narrative may hinder more than help:

the Narrative tendency to look for story or narrative coherence in one’s life is, in general, a gross hindrance to self-understanding: to a just, general, practically real sense, implicit or explicit, of one’s nature. It’s well known that telling and retelling one’s past leads to changes, smoothings, enhancements, shifts away from the facts … The implication is plain: the more you recall, retell, narrate yourself, the further you risk moving away from accurate self-understanding, from the truth of your being. (Strawson, 2004, p. 447).

Eakin (2008) has argued against Strawson’s dissociation of personal identity from any narrative evaluation of one’s past and future. It may all depend on the way in which the memory of the past is organized. Not all stories are told from beginning to end. As Christman (2004) has pointed out the events in a narrative may be linked according to causal connections (from the beginning), teleological directions (toward the end) or thematic relations (interacting foci).

What the condition of narrativity amounts to, then, is the more basic requirement that the person must be able to look upon the factors and events of her life with a certain interpretive reflection, whether or not those factors and events have any particular narrative unity in a traditional sense. Christman (2004).

Person and Memory

A person is an entity with a unique point of view that can be exercised in both space and time. From this particular perspective a person can perceive the present world, remember the past and speculate about the future.

Persons differ on how they view the relation between themselves and the world. Some live mainly for the present and have little relationship to their past. Indeed they may even feel that their past self was a different person from their present self. They may have difficulty recalling the experience of a past episodes in their lives even though they know that they occurred. Others pay particular attention to what has happened to them and how they might approach the future. They are intensely interested in how their life develops over time.

Whether such differences are the result of the normal variability of human memory systems or the result of a deficiency in some neural process or processes remains an open question. We need to find out how episodic memories are generated in the brain and how they differ from semantic memories. How differences in memory style relate to differences in personality also needs investigation. For example, are diachronics more likely to be introverted than extraverted?

Omphale

The posting concludes with a photograph of the statue of Omphale in the Schönbrunn Garden in Vienna. The photograph was taken by Manfred Werner using a flash, during a summer night-time concert of the Vienna Philharmonic.

For three years Hercules was Omphale’s slave and lover. At times they exchanged their clothing. In the statue Omphale wears Hercules lion-skin and carries his club. The photograph is formally very similar to the photograph of Clio at the beginning of this post. Yet for me they differ in much the same way as semantic and episodic memory. Clio is abstract and put together after the fact. Omphale is an experience.

Omphale, Sommernachtskonzert Schönbrunn 2012

Omphale, Sommernachtskonzert Schönbrunn 2012

References

Behan, D. (1979). Locke on persons and personal identity. Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 9, 53–75.

Christman, J. (2004). Narrative unity as a condition of personhood. Metaphilosophy, 35, 695–713.

Coetzee, J. M., & Kurtz, A. (2015). The good story: Exchanges on truth, fiction and psychotherapy. London: Harvill Secker.

Condillac, E. B. de (1746). Essai sur l’origine des connoissances humaines. Available at Université de Québec à Chicoutimi.

La liaison de plusieurs idées ne peut avoir d’autre cause que l’attention que nous leur avons donnée, quand elles se sont présentées ensemble: ainsi les choses n’attirant notre attention que par le rapport qu’elles ont à notre tempérament, à nos passions, à notre état, ou, pour tout dire en un mot, à nos besoins.

Lorsque les objets attirent notre attention, les perceptions qu’ils occasionnent en nous, se lient avec le sentiment de notre être et avec tout ce qui peut y avoir quelque rapport. De là il arrive que non seulement la conscience nous donne connaissance de nos perceptions, mais encore, si elles se répètent, elle nous avertit souvent que nous les avons déjà eues, et nous les fait connaître comme étant à nous, ou comme affectant,  malgré leur variété et leur succession, un être qui est constamment le même nous. La conscience, considérée par rapport à ces nouveaux effets, est une nouvelle opération qui nous sert à chaque instant et qui est le fondement de l’expérience. Sans elle chaque moment de la vie nous parait le premier de notre existence, et notre connaissance ne s’étendrait jamais au-delà d’une première perception: je la nommerai réminiscence.

Condillac, E. B. de (1754). Traité des sensations. Available at Université de Québec à Chicoutimi.

[J]e me vois, je me touche, en un mot, je me sens, mais je ne sais ce que je suis.

Dennett, D. C. (1992). The self as a center of narrative gravity. In: F. Kessel, P. Cole & D. Johnson (eds.) Self and consciousness: Multiple perspectives. (pp 102-115) Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum

Donald, M. (2001). A mind so rare: The evolution of human consciousness. New York: Norton.

Eakin, P. J. (2008). Living autobiographically. How we create identity in narrative. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Falkenstein, L. (2010) Étienne Bonnot de CondillacStanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Hume, D. (1738). Treatise of Human Nature. London: John Noon. Available at Project Gutenberg.

Kaitaro, T. (2007). Memory, imagination and language in eighteenth-century French sensualism. Cortex, 43, 651-657.

LePort, A. K., Mattfeld, A. T., Dickinson-Anson, H., Fallon, J. H., Stark, C. E., Kruggel, F., & McGaugh, J. L. (2012). Behavioral and neuroanatomical investigation of Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM). Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 98, 78–92.

Levine, B., Black, S. E., Cabeza, R., Sinden, M., McIntosh, A. R., Toth, J. P. Stuss, D. T. & Tulving, E.  (1998). Episodic memory and the self in a case of isolated retrograde amnesia. Brain, 121, 1951–1973.

Locke, J. (1689/1694). An essay concerning human understanding. 2nd Ed. London: Thomas Basset. Available at Project Gutenberg.

MacIntyre, A. C. (1981/2007). After virtue: A study in moral theory. 3rd Ed. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Olsen, E. T. (2010). Personal identity. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Palombo, D. J., Alain, C., Söderlund, H., Khuu, W., & Levine, B. (2015). Severely deficient autobiographical memory (SDAM) in healthy adults: A new mnemonic syndrome. Neuropsychologia, 72, 105–118

Parfit, D. (19840. Reasons and Persons. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Parfit, D. (19840. Reasons and Persons. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Picton, T. W. (2012). The necessary narrative. In B. Levine and F. I. M. Craik (Eds.) Mind and the frontal lobes. Cognition, Behavior and Brain Imaging. (pp. 264-278). New York: Oxford University Press.

Rees, G. (1961). A bundle of sensations: Sketches in autobiography. New York: Macmillan

Renoult, L., Davidson, P.S., Palombo, D.J., Moscovitch, M., & Levine,B. (2012). Personal semantics: at the crossroads of semantic and episodic memory. Trends in Cognitive Science, 16, 550–558.

Rugg, M.D. & Vilberg, K.L. (2013). Brain networks underlying episodic memory retrieval. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 23, 255-260.

Sartre, J.-P. (1943, corrigée avec index par A. Elkaim-Sartre, 1995). L’être et le néant: Essai d’ontologie phénoménologique. Paris: Librarie Gallimard (Editions Tel). English translation by H. Barnes is reprinted by Washington Square Press (1956/1984).

La liberté, c’est précisément le néant qui est été au Coeur de l’homme et qui contraint la réalité humaine à se faire, au lieu d’être. Nous l’avons vu, pour la la réalité humaine, être c’est se choisir: rien ne lui vient du dehors, ni du dedans non plus, qu’elle puisse recevoir ou accepter. Elle est entièrement abandonee, sans aucune aide d’aucune sorte, à l’insoutenable nécessité de se faire être jusque dans le moindre detail.

Strawson, G. (2004). Against narrativity. Ratio, 17, 428–451.

Strawson, G. (2012). “We live beyond any tale that we happen to enact.” Harvard Review of Philosophy, 18, 73-90.

Taylor, C. (1985). Philosophical Papers. Volume 1. Human agency and language. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press. (Chapter 4. The concept of a person. pp. 97-114).

Taylor, C. (1989). Sources of the self: The making of the modern identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Tulving, E. (1972). Episodic and semantic memory. In E. Tulving & W. Donaldson, (Eds.) Organization of Memory. (pp. 381–403). New York: Academic Press.

Tulving, E. (1983). Elements of episodic memory. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Tulving, E. (2002). Episodic memory: from mind to brain. Annual Review of Psychology, 53, 1–25.

Vilberg, K.L., & Rugg, M.D. (2009). Functional significance of retrieval-related activity in lateral parietal cortex: Evidence from fMRI and ERPs. Human Brain Mapping, 30, 1490-501.

Wellman, H. M. (2011) Developing a theory of mind. In U. Goswami (Ed.), Handbook of Childhood Cognitive Development, 2nd Ed. (pp. 258-284). Chichester, UK: Wiley Blackwell.

Wheeler, M. A., Stuss, D. T., & Tulving, E. (1997). Toward a theory of episodic memory: the frontal lobes and autonoetic consciousness. Psychological Bulletin, 121, 331–354.




Camille Claudel

cesar camille xb

 

The photograph is striking. A young woman stares defiantly at the camera. One feels her passion and her sensuality. Her unkempt hair is tied back from her eyes. She is in working clothes but for the camera she has wrapped a scarf around her neck and fixed it with a pin. The photographer went by the name of César, but nothing else is known about him. The photograph was taken in 1883 or 1884. The Rodin Museum in Paris has an albumen print. The photograph was published in 1913 in the Parisian journal L’Art Décoratif (Claudel, 1913b).

 

 

 

 

The subject was Camille Claudel (1864-1943). Her younger brother remembered her:

this superb young woman, in the full brilliance of her beauty and genius … a splendid forehead surmounting magnificent eyes of that rare deep blue so rarely seen except in novels, a nose that reflected her heritage in Champagne, a prominent mouth more proud than sensual, a mighty tuft of chestnut hair, a true chestnut that the English call auburn, falling to her hips. An impressive air of courage, frankness, superiority, gaiety. (Paul Claudel, introduction to the 1951 exhibit of Camille’s sculpture, quoted in Claudel, 2008, p. 359).

At the time of the photograph, Camille was twenty. For two years, she had been learning to sculpt, sharing a studio with the English student Jessie Lipscombe, and studying with the sculptor Alfred Boucher, one of the few art teachers in Paris willing to tutor women. When Boucher left Paris for a year in Florence in 1882, he recommended his student to Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). Camille Claudel became Rodin’s student, his model, his lover, his muse and his colleague.

Ten years later Camille left Rodin, and set herself up in her own studio. Rodin tried to send commissions her way, and for several years she was able to work productively. After successful exhibitions in the Galerie Eugène Blot in 1905 and 1908, however, Camille became withdrawn and unable to work. She became convinced that Rodin and his “gang” were trying to steal her ideas. She destroyed many of her maquettes. She boarded up her studio and lived in dirt and squalor, coming out only at night. In 1913, her family had her forcibly committed to an insane asylum near Paris. With the onset of the war, Camille was transferred to the Montdevergues asylum in Provence. There she remained until her death in 1943 at the age of 79.

Passion

The affair between Rodin and Camille was well known to their colleagues. However, it was hidden from society, and little documentation survives to describe their passion. Novelists (Delbée, 1982/1992; Webb, 2015), musicians (Heggie & Scheer, 2012) and actors (Anne Delbée, 1982; Isabelle Adjani in Nuytten, 1988/2011; Juliette Binoche in Dumont, 2013) have imagined what it was like to be Camille, but we remain unsure.

Camille’s position in the affair was by far the more precarious. Rodin already had a mistress – Rose Beuret, a former model. She tolerated Rodin’s affairs but maintained the right of primacy. Rose was indeed considered by many to be Rodin’s wife, although they were not formally married until 1917 (just before both Rodin and she were to die).

Camille came from a conservative Catholic family. Her desire to be an artist ran counter to her family’s wishes. When they learned of her affair with Rodin, they were completely scandalized. Only her father continued to support her both emotionally and financially. Camille spent much effort trying to persuade Rodin to give up Rose, but to no avail. However, she did get Rodin to agree briefly to a “contract” in 1886, wherein he promised that

I will have for a student only Mademoiselle Camille Claudel and I will protect her alone though all the means I have at my disposal through my friends who will be hers especially through my influential friends (Ayre-Clause, 2002, p.71).

The social position of an unmarried woman artist was extremely difficult. Rodin could do as he pleased. Having affairs with beautiful women was one of his pleasures. Camille had no freedom. Even my treatment of the couple shades easily into such differences – I refer to her by her first name and him by his last. (Part of this is to avoid confusion with Camille’s brother Paul, but part is probably because I have picked up the viewpoint of fin-de-siècle France. This issue is discussed by Wilson, 2012.)

Rodin’s passion for his muse was intense. Camille’s biographer Odile Ayre-Clause (2002, p. 60) quoted a recently recovered letter from Rodin to Camille. This appears to have followed one of their quarrels:

Have pity, cruel girl, I can’t go on, I can’t spend another day without seeing you. Otherwise the atrocious madness. It is over, I don’t work anymore, malevolent goddess, and yet I love furiously. My Camille be assured that I feel love for no other woman, and that my soul belongs to you. … Ah! Divine beauty, flower who speaks and loves, intelligent flower, my darling. My dear one, I am on my knees facing your beautiful body which I embrace.

Their physical passion was allied to creative cooperation. Similar themes occur in the work of both artists. Perhaps the most striking parallel is found between Camille’s Sakuntala and Rodin’s Eternal Idol. Camille’s sculpture is based on an Indian legend about a king who married the maiden Sakuntala, but then was cursed and lost the memory of both his wife and his son. Ultimately the curse was lifted, and the sculpture depicts the moment of their reconciliation.

sakuntala idol x

Rodin’s sculpture has no clear derivation. Rainer-Maria Rilke, who served as Rodin’s secretary from 1902-1906, described its effect:

A girl kneels, her beautiful body is softly bent backward, her right arm is stretched behind her. Her hand has gropingly found her foot. In these three lines which shut her in from the outer world her life lies enclosed with its secret. The stone beneath her lifts her up as she kneels there. And suddenly, in the attitude into which the young girl has fallen from idleness, or reverie, or solitude, one recognizes an ancient, sacred symbol, a posture like that into which the goddess of distant, cruel cults had sunk. The head of this woman bends somewhat forward; with an expression of indulgence, majesty and forbearance, she looks down as from the height of a still night upon the man who sinks his face into her bosom as though into many blossoms. He, too, kneels, but deeper, deep in the stone. His hands lie behind him like worthless and empty things. His right hand is open; one sees into it. From this group radiates a mysterious greatness. One does not dare to give it one meaning, it has thousands. Thoughts glide over it like shadows, new meanings arise like riddles and unfold into clear significance. Something of the mood of a Purgatorio lives within this work. A heaven is near that has not yet been reached, a hell is near that has not yet been forgotten. [Ein Himmel ist nah, aber er ist noch nicht erreicht; eine Hölle ist nah, aber sie ist noch nicht vergessen.] Here, too, all splendour flashes from the contact of the two bodies and from the contact of the woman with herself. (Rilke, 1907/1919, pp 42-43).

At the time that she was ending the affair with Rodin, Camille was working on a sculptural ensemble called the L’Age mûr (Maturity). It depicts a man being led away from a pleading young woman by an old woman. The figure of the young woman was also reproduced by itself as L’Implorante (Supplicant). The ensemble can be interpreted as fate leading man away from youth toward death. However, it is impossible not to see the Rose Beuret, Rodin and Camille in the figures.

agemur b

Achievements

lavalse b

 

After her break with Rodin, Claudel worked as an independent artist. She had very little money to support large bronze castings and her major sales involved small pieces for tabletop. Camille became adept at creating sculptures for personal rather than public enjoyment. Two pieces are worth noting. The first is The Waltz, several copies of which were cast in bronze. One graced the piano of Claude Debussy. Its fascination lies in the way it combines both movement and stillness.

 

 

 

This sculpture is evoked in the song cycle Camille Claudel: Into the Fire (Heggie & Scheer, 2012), recorded by Joyce DiDonato and the Alexander Quartet. The following is a brief excerpt:

Is it in the spirit?
Is it in the flesh?
Where do I abide?
Console.
Oh, console my eyes with beauty.
Allow me to forget
That every dance of love
Is mingled with regret.

pensee profonde b

 

Another piece – Deep Thought – shows a young woman kneeling before a fireplace. The piece combines both bronze and onyx in a marvelous mix of texture. It is difficult to say why this resonates so deeply. Perhaps it suggests the dreams of what might be or what might have been.

 

 

Paul Claudel described his sister’s achievement in terms of its “inner thought:”

Just as a man sitting in the countryside employs, to accompany his meditation, a tree or a rock on which to anchor his eye, so a work by Camille Claudel in the middle of a room is, by its mere form, like those curious stones that the Chinese collect: a kind of monument of inner thought, the tuft of a theme accessible to any and every dream. While a book, for example, must be taken from the shelves of our library, or a piece of music must be performed, the worked metal or stone here releases its own incantation, and our chamber is imbued with it. (Claudel , 1913b, translated by Richard Howard in Paris, 1988).

Paranoia

For a sculptor, large compositions were essential to recognition and success. The sales of the small pieces did not bring in very much money, and Camille’s stipend from her father was not large. She lapsed into poverty, depression and paranoia. She attributed her lack of success to Rodin, whom she accused of stealing her work and making money by re-casting her sculptures and selling them to “his pals, the chic artists” (letter to Paul Claudel, 1910, quoted in Paris, 1984/1988, p 132). By 1913, Camille’s condition was dire. Dr. Michaux, the physician who certified that she should be committed to an asylum, said that she had sealed up the windows of her studio, had sold everything except for an armchair and a bed, never washed, never went out except by night, and often went without food (Wilson, 2012).

Camille’s father died on March 2, 1913. As soon as this last support was gone, the Claudel family quickly moved to have Camille committed. On March 10 Camille was forcibly interned in an asylum near Paris. Her diagnosis was paranoid psychosis. Some of her supporters voiced objections, but these came to naught. When the war began Camille was transferred to the Montdevergues asylum in the south of France, where she remained until she died in 1943.

At the asylum, Camille continued to have paranoid thoughts about Rodin. After Rodin died in 1917, Camille transferred her suspicions to his followers (and to various Protestant and Jewish cliques). She insisted on preparing her own food, since she was afraid that her enemies were trying to poison her. Nevertheless, much of the time Camille was quite rational. She was never aggressive or violent. Her doctors continuously recommended that she be taken back to live with the family, or at least transferred to a hospital near the family, where she could be visited more easily. The family refused any such suggestions. For fear of scandal, they insisted that Camille not be allowed to send or receive mail from anyone other than her brother and mother. Paranoia sets up positive feedback loops: when patients perceive that people are acting against them, they actually often are.

Paranoid thinking is common. Delusions of persecution occur more frequently than delusions of grandeur. About 10-15% of people harbors thoughts that they are persecuted (Freeman, 2007). Most of these do not require treatment. Modern cognitive psychology considers persecutory delusions to be largely caused by a willingness to “jump to conclusions” when entertaining theories about the origin of stress (Freeman & Garrety, 2014). Additional factors are social isolation, which decreases the chance of anyone providing meaningful feedback, and a lack of sleep, which leads to dream-like rather than rational thought.

Paranoia is a continuum. Although many people with mild delusions can function normally, more ingrained delusions can lead to problems adjusting to society. In the past, mild forms of paranoia were considered paranoid personality disorder, and more severe forms paranoid psychosis, although these specific diagnostic categories are no longer recognized. The psychiatrists Lhermitte and Allilaire (1984) reviewed the psychiatric history of Camille Claudel and came to a diagnosis of paranoid psychosis.

In 1929, Camille’s old friend and colleague, Jessie Lipscomb, who had returned to England and married, found out where Camille was hospitalized. She and her husband then visited her in Montdevergues. Jessie insisted after their reunion that Camille had shown no signs of madness. Jessie’s, husband, William Elborne, took two photographs. One shows Camille alone, seated with her arms folded. The other shows Camille and Jessie seated together. As noted by Ayre Clause (2002, p.231):

With her arms folded around herself, Camille does not seem to see Jessie’s hand softly reaching out to her. The long years of isolation have taken their toll; Camille looks empty and withdrawn.

elborne photos

Social isolation is probably the worst approach to treating paranoia. Somehow, the patients must be induced to interact with others. They must learn to consider themselves as others see them. Clearly this must be commenced gently with a therapist whom the patient trusts. The treatment must try to decrease the ingrained suspicion of others, and to help the patient to use more rational modes of thought.

None of this was available in Montdevergues. Most of the inmates were far more psychotic than Camille. She lived in a veritable hell. She wrote in 1934 to Eugène Blot, the owner of the gallery where she had exhibited her work:

Je suis tombée dans le gouffre. Je vis dans un monde si curieux, si étrange. Du rêve que fut ma vie, ceci est le cauchemar.  I have fallen into the abyss. I live in a world so curious, so strange. Of the dream that was my life, this is the nightmare. (quoted by Morel, 2009).

Compassion

The position of Claudel family toward Camille is difficult to understand (Lhermitte & Allilaire, 1984; Schmoll gen. Eisenwerth, 1994, pp 109-114; Ayre-Clausse, 2002, pp 237-253). Camille’s mother was so scandalized by her daughter’s behavior and so constrained by her rigid religion that she never once visited her in hospital. Louise also could not bring herself to have anything to do with her wayward sister. Some of this rejection reflected the way mental disorders were considered at the time (Lhermitte & Allilaire, 1984): mad relatives were hidden away from society and ignored.

Paul Claudel (1868-1955) was Camille’s younger brother. In 1886, at the age of 18, he experienced a mystical revelation while listening to the Magnificat in Notre Dame, and thenceforth was a devoted Catholic. He became a renowned poet (e.g., Claudel, 1913a) and playwright (e.g., Claudel, 1960). His poetry is impressive: he used a new form of blank verse with the length of the line related to the time it takes to speak the line before taking a breath. His poetry has the sound of litany and incantation. At times, however, the writing becomes tedious, so closely is it related to his religious beliefs. Paul became a professional diplomat, representing France in the United States, China, Brazil, Denmark and Tokyo. Despite his devoutness, he carried on a long adulterous affair with a married woman, until she finally broke of their relationship.

Paul was Camille’s favorite sibling. One of her first major sculptures was a bust of Paul as a young Roman. Paul promoted his sister’s career, writing articles in magazines glorifying her sculptures (e.g., Claudel, 1913b).

Despite their closeness as children and despite his enthusiasm for her art, Paul had little to do with Camille after she was admitted to Montdevergues. He visited her only a few times, and refused all of her requests to be released or transferred closer to the family. Some of this may have been related to his diplomatic appointments, but he did not visit even when he retired and he settled down in France in 1936. This lack of compassion is strange in a man so religious. Sometimes the mystic forgets himself in his visions and forgets to care for others.

paulclaudel b

 

In a photograph taken in 1951, the elderly Paul Claudel holds onto a bust Camille made of him when he was young. The photograph is imbued with regret. Yet it is not clear whether it is for himself or his sister.

 

 

 

Farewell

We should not leave Camille without seeing her as she was in her time of passion and creation. One of the most insightful impressions of Camille is a plaster cast by Rodin, a portrait of Camille, aptly entitled The Farewell. Both the hands and the face are exquisitely moulded. The sculpture is ambiguous. Are the hands reaching up to stop the tears, to shut out the world, or to gather something in?

rodin adieu

References

Ayral-Clause, O. (2002). Camille Claudel: A life. New York: Harry N. Abrams.

Claudel, C. (2008). Camille Claudel: 1864-1943. Paris: Musée Rodin (Gallimard).

Claudel, P. (1913a). Cinq grandes odes: Suivies d’un processionnal pour saluer le siècle nouveau. Paris: Gallimard.

Claudel, P. (1913b). Camille Claudel: statuaire. L’Art Décoratif. Revue de l’art ancient et de la vie artistique moderne. 30 (July, 1913), 5-50.

Claudel, P. (translated by W. Fowlie, 1960). Two dramas: Break of noon (Partage de midi) The tidings brought to Mary (L’annonce faite à Marie). Chicago: H. Regnery.

Delbée, A. (1982, translated by Cosman, C., 1992). Camille Claudel: Une femme. San Francisco: Mercury House. Delbée also acted in the play Une Femme from which this novel derives.

Dumont. B. (2013). Camille Claudel 1915 (videorecording) Montréal: TVA Films.

Freeman, D. (2007). Suspicious minds: the psychology of persecutory delusions. Clinical Psychology Review, 27, 425–457,

Freeman, D., & Garety, P. (2014). Advances in understanding and treating persecutory delusions: a review. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 49, 1179–1189.

Heggie, J., & Scheer, G. (2012) Camille Claudel: Into the fire. Music for mezzo-soprano and string quartet. San Francisco: Bent Pen Music. Performed by Joyce DiDonato and the Alexander Quartet on the CD: Here/after: Songs of lost voices. Baarn, Netherlands: Pentatone Classics.

Lhermitte, F., & Allilaire, X. (1984). Camille Claudel: Malade mentale. In Paris, R.-M: Camille Claudel: 1864-1943. (pp. 155-208). Paris: Gallimard. (This article is not included in the English translation of the book.)

Morel, J.-P. (2009).Camille Claudel: Une mise au tombeau. Bruxelles: Impressions nouvelles.

Nuytten, B. (1988/2001). Camille Claudel. (videorecording). Santa Monica, CA: MGM Home Entertainment.

Paris, R.-M. (1984, translated by Tuck, L.E., 1988). Camille: The life of Camille Claudel, Rodin’s muse and mistress. New York: Seaver Books.

Rilke, R. M. (1907, translated by J. Lemont & H. Taussig, 1919). Auguste Rodin. New York: Sunrise Turn.

Schmoll gen. Eisenwerth, J. A. (1994, translated by J. Ormrod). Auguste Rodin and Camille Claudel. Munich: Prestel-Verlag.

Webb, H. (2015). Rodin’s lover. New York: Plume.

Wilson, S. (2010). Camille Claudel: ‘Du rêve que fut ma vie, ceci est le cauchemar’ In S. Wilson (Ed.): Voices from the Asylum: Four French Women Writers, 1850-1920. (pp. 184-221). New York: Oxford.

 




Determined to Be Free

Scenario

Imagine yourself 20 years from now. A brilliant cognitive neuroscientist claims to be able to read your brain and predict your future behavior. She studied with Sam Harris in Los Angeles and then completed her postdoctoral work with Chun Siong Soon and John-Dylan Haynes in Berlin. She knows her stuff and she uses the most advanced technology.

You will be able to press one of five buttons. Before you do so, the neuroscientist will take a scan of your brain, analyse it and predict which button you will choose. She will pay particular attention to the posterior cingulate gyrus and the rostral prefrontal cortex. She is willing to bet you that her prediction will be correct.

If you take the bet, you believe in free will. If you do not, you are a determinist – or in this context a “neuro-determinist.”

Faites vos jeux!

wager blog

Concept of Determinism

Modern determinism was most clearly stated by Pierre-Simon Laplace in 1812. He proposed that an intelligence – whether God or Demon, whether real or hypothetical – could completely predict the future from the present if the intelligence knew all the “forces by which nature is animated” and could measure the exact “situation” of everything in the present universe:

We ought then to regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its anterior state and as the cause of the one which is to follow. Given for one instant an intelligence which could comprehend all the forces by which nature is animated and the respective situation of the beings who compose it – an intelligence sufficiently vast to submit these data to analysis – it would embrace in the same formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the lightest atom; for it, nothing would be uncertain and the future, as the past, would be present to its eyes (Laplace, 1812/1902, p 4).

Determinism is the basic premise of science, which attempts to discern the causal laws by which the universe operates (Earman, 1986; Hoefer, 2010). Everything is caused by something else. Nothing is a causa sui (cause of itself). The universe contains no freely acting anything or anybody.

Determinism is usually interpreted in terms of what will happen. However, in Laplace’s definition it also casts its net backward: if we know everything about the present then we can tell exactly what happened in the past.

What is not always recognized is that Laplace wrote his definition of determinism in the introduction to his book A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities. Now, probability is what we use when we cannot predict exactly what will happen. A hypothetical vast intelligence might, but we cannot. We estimate the odds rather than predict the outcomes.

If the concept of determinism is taken seriously, then the present is determined by the immediate past, that past is itself determined by what preceded it, and so on. Ultimately, everything must have been decided when the world began, and all our actions determined 13.8 billion years ago at the moment of the Big Bang. In the words of Omar Khayyam:

With earthʹs first clay they did the last man knead,
And there of the last harvest sowed the seed.
And the first morning of creation wrote
What the last dawn of reckoning shall read.
(Fitzgerald translation, 5th Version LXVIII)

Determinism is a powerful working hypothesis but it may not be universally applicable. In the early 20th century, we became aware that atomic and sub-atomic processes are not deterministic (Ismael, 2015). They follow exact rules, but these are expressed in terms of probabilities rather than certainties.

Most biologists consider that at the levels of chemistry and physiology, quantum uncertainty averages out and we are “for all intents and purposes” fully determined. At macroscopic levels, quantum uncertainty therefore plays no significant role in the prediction of the future.

My suggestion, however, is that the universe veers away from strict determinism both at levels of extreme simplicity – quantum uncertainty – and at levels of extreme complexity – conscious choice.

Problem of Chaos

Sometimes, as Edward Lorenz (1996) has shown, fully determined systems are liable to chaos. Chaos occurs “when the present completely determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future” (Lorenz, 2005).

The movie below provides an example of a typical deterministic system – billiard balls on a billiard table. If the rules by which the system operates and the positions and velocities of the balls are exactly known, the future of the system can be precisely predicted. The life of a billiard ball goes from collision to collision. Although there are occasional near misses there is no choice.

On the left is the actual system. It is not perfect – the table is frictionless and the balls are inelastic (there is only so much an old man can program) – but it does follow deterministic laws.  On the right is the modeled system. If we initiate movement in the white ball, our prediction fits exactly with what happens.

Some determined systems, however, are chaotic. In a chaotic system our predictions can be wildly off the mark if our measurement of the initial state of the system is not exact. Chaos is usually considered in terms of complex systems such as the weather: butterflies in Brazil causing tornados in Texas. However, chaos also occurs in very simple systems, even in billiards.

The next example shows the same deterministic system on the left as in the previous movie. On the right is the prediction. This time the measurement of the initial position of the white ball was out by one pixel. The measurement of the velocity vector was exact.

At the very beginning the prediction is approximately correct. After the first few seconds, however, the model shows no relationship whatsoever to the actual.

Chaos is an inherent part of physical determinism. It is therefore often impossible to measure the state of the world with sufficient accuracy to give any meaningful predictions of what will actually occur. Our model of the future may look nothing like what it will be.

Chaos does not disprove determinism: chaos is completely determined. However it makes it very difficult to prove that determinism underlies everything. That hypothesis would require that we be able to measure the universe with absolute accuracy. That we cannot do.

Limits of Prediction

Even without chaos, complete predictability is impossible. The universe contains neither time nor space enough to map its own future.

Laplace was wrong to claim that even in a classical, non-chaotic universe the future can be unerringly predicted, given sufficient knowledge of the present. (Wolpert, 2008).

turingThe proof is related to Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem and Turing’s Halting Problem. A Turing machine reads an infinite tape one symbol at a time. According to its internal state at the time of reading, the machine then changes the symbol written on the tape, moves the tape, and changes its state. The Turing machine is a model of a computer. We cannot predict when the machine will stop. We are unable to know if a problem is soluble before it is solved. We cannot predict the entire future before it has already occurred.

David Wolpert’s work means that “No matter what laws of physics govern a universe, there are inevitably facts about the universe that its inhabitants cannot learn by experiment or predict with a computation.” (Collins, 2009). The most we can hope for is a “theory of almost everything” (Binder, 2008).

However, even though we cannot prove determinism, we cannot disprove it. It continues to be a reasonable working hypothesis for most situations.

Lack of predictability is a characteristic of free will. A test for free will (Lloyd, 2012) might involve the following criteria: the ability to make decisions, the use of recursive reasoning in making those decisions, the ability to predict the future, and the inability to predict what one will decide. If you are in the process of deciding how to act and if you cannot predict how you will decide, you are in a state of free will.

Quantum Uncertainties

One way out of the problem that quantum uncertainty poses for determinism is to claim that yet-unknown deterministic laws underlie quantum events. Once we discover these laws we will be able to re-cast quantum mechanics so that all events are exactly rather than stochastically determined. The problem with such a “superdeterminism” is that in order to derive the underlying laws governing quantal processes we would have to observe events at subquantal levels. That would require using subquantal measuring devices, and that would run up against Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle (Hilgevoord & Uffink, 2006). I think indeterminism is here to stay. The only thing we can be certain about is ultimate uncertainty.

Quantum uncertainty may provide a way for our behavior not to be fully determined by antecedent causes. We would need to imagine some way for unpredictable quantum events to change brain activity. Penrose and Hameroff (2011) have suggested that quantum events in the neuronal microtubules – the Orchestrated Objective Reduction of Quantum States – could underlie our choices of one action over another.

However, making free will depend on quantum uncertainty is unsatisfying in that it reduces free will to chance rather than choice. Random is not the same as free. If we make our decisions on the basis of random quantum events, we are just subject to the tyranny of the atom rather than the will of God.

Even Sam Harris agrees:

Chance occurrences are by definition ones for which I can claim no responsibility. And if certain of my behaviors are truly the result of chance, they should be surprising even to me (Harris, 2012).

However, randomness can still play a role in free choice. We might decide to base our decisions on a random event, such as flipping a coin, so as to be fair to both sides of a question. We might also use a random process to add noise to a decision (like raising the temperature in an annealing process), or to determine how many options to evaluate or for how long (e.g. Dennett, 1978). For Peter Tse (2013) free will is caused by the “criterial selection” of random synaptic activity in cerebral cortex.

Logical Problems

Two contradictory statements can be made in relation to free will and determinism (van Inwagen, 1983, 2008):

(i) Freedom of the will is not possible if the world is completely determined. Free will means that we are sometimes in the position with respect to a contemplated future act that we are able either to perform the act or to do otherwise. If we can indeed do otherwise – if two different futures can equally follow from the same present – then the future is not determined. The claim that we can choose between these two futures is incompatible with the idea that the past and the laws of nature together determine, at every moment, a unique future.

(ii) However, free will cannot act without determinism. If we make a decision, we can only carry it out if our behavior is determined by that decision – if action potentials travel down the nerves to the muscles, if the muscles move the limbs, and if the limbs perform the intended physical acts. Unless the world is deterministic, we cannot exercise our free will.

So we cannot have free will if the universe is completely determined, and free will is meaningless if the universe is not determined. There are two ways out of this conundrum. We can accept that the universe is determined, and conclude that our idea of free will is an illusion. Or we can agree with van Inwagen that free will is true and conclude that the world is not completely determined.

Van Inwagen considers free will to be true because he cannot imagine human life without personal moral responsibility. If there is no free will, everything we do is determined before we have anything to do with it. We need not think; we are never responsible for our actions; any idea of justice is meaningless. All evil will be exculpated by fMRI evidence that the brain was just unable to be good.

A world where people do not believe in free will is not pleasant. Simply suggesting to subjects that there is no free will encourages dishonesty and mischief. The less someone believes in free will, the more likely he or she will cheat if the opportunity presents (Vohs & Schooler, 2008), and the more likely she or he will indulge in anti-social acts if they will not be discovered (Baumeister et al., 2009).

So, even if we are not free, should we act as if we were? This is a strange way to live our lives.

However, we can take positions other that of full determinism in relation to the problem of free will:

fw determ table

Van Inwagen’s position is one of philosophical “libertarianism.” (This is not the same as political libertarianism, which disputes the laws of society rather than the laws of science.)

Most of us believe that we have free will, but we are also convinced that the universe is determined. We are “compatibilists” – determinism is true but so is free will. We do not know how the two co-occur, but somehow they must. In surveys of what we believe, compatibilists are in a clear majority: 75% of normal folk (Nahmias et al, 2005), and 80% of biologists (Graffin & Provine, 2007). Even 60% of philosophers, those that should not support logical contradictions, consider themselves compatibilists (Bourget & Chalmers, 2014). The other 40% are evenly divided between undecided, libertarians and determinists.

Dan Dennett is the most prominent of our present compatibilists. But he is unclear about exactly how free will can exist in a world of causes. Something to do with human knowledge and communication:

Our autonomy does not depend on anything like the miraculous suspension of causation but rather on the integrity of the processes of education and mutual sharing of knowledge. (Dennett, 2003).

Evolution and Free Will

Darwin thought that free will was a delusion. Since we are not conscious of the instincts that actually drive our actions, we only think that we freely choose. In fact we do not.

The general delusion about free will obvious – because man has power of action, & he can seldom analyse his motives (originally mostly instinctive, & therefore now great effort of reason to discover them: this is important explanation) he thinks they have none. (from Darwin’s Notebooks, about 1839, edited by Barrett et al., 1987, p 608; these notes are discussed in Wright, 1994, p. 350).

Evolution is often considered as part of a general determinism. Selection occurs according to hard and fast rules. Species that cannot survive to reproduce do not continue. Yet indeterminism rests at the very heart of Darwin’s theory. Evolution depends on two processes: the production of offspring with variable characteristics and the selection of those offspring that survive in a world of limited resources. The variation is largely a result of genetic mutations and these are caused by indeterministic quantum events.

Some people have likened cognitive processing to Darwinian evolution (e.g., Edelman, 1987). In evolution, various species are created and only the most adaptive are selected. In cognition, various possible actions are considered and only the most appropriate are selected.

A major problem is why evolution determined that consciousness and free will occur. Human beings are certainly the most successful of all earth’s species. This would suggest that consciousness and free will are highly adaptive traits that have been selected to facilitate our survival. Evolution is a deterministic process. Yet by selecting out the fittest, evolution has led to consciousness and free will. We have been determined to be free.

Neurodeterminism

Neuroscience entered the philosophical arena in the early 1980s when Benjamin Libet evaluated the relations between volition and the readiness potential (or Bereitschaftspotential) recorded from the scalp. The readiness potential began up to a second before the movement but the subject consciously perceived the time of movement initiation at about 200 ms before the movement. The brain decides unconsciously; awareness follows after.

BSP libet blog

Similar experiments have recorded unit activity in the human frontal cortex beginning about 2 seconds before the act (Fried et al., 2011) and fMRI activation patterns (Soon et al., 2008, 2013) between 4 and 10 seconds prior to the act.

These experiments have led to a theory of volition that has been called “neuro-determinism.” Perhaps a better term might be “Libetarianism.” Our actions are willy-nilly determined by cerebral processes about which we are unaware. We only become conscious of what we are doing just before we do it. We do not control our actions, we just watch them taking place.

The 200 ms between the awareness of response-initiation and its occurrence could make it possible to inhibit or “veto” a response in process. Thus we can be consoled with the idea that even if we don’t have free will, we have “free won’t.” Yet recent experiments have shown that even this might be unconsciously driven (Filevich et al., 2013).

One problem with the neural measurements is that we do not know what they represent. Many different cerebral processes contribute to the readiness potential – estimating time, preparing to respond (or not), monitoring performance, etc. Some of these can be unconscious and can correlate significantly with later acts. Yet such processes do not necessarily cause the act – the mind can always change at the last minute (or millisecond).

In addition, our concept of volition is multidimensional (Roskies 2010). It can refer to the general intentions that one has in regard to a particular situation, the planning of how and when to respond, and the specific initiation of an act. A subject’s voluntary participation in a Bereitschaftspotential experiment involves his or her agreement to do what is asked by the experimenter, the setting up of the necessary timing and motor programs to control the responses, and the final initiation of the act. Any or all of these processes may contribute to the physiological recordings at different times.

Nevertheless, these physiological findings have led many scientists and philosophers to claim that our idea of free will is illusory:

Our sense of being a conscious agent who does things comes at a cost of being technically wrong all the time. The feeling of doing is how it seems, not what it is (Wegener, 2002).

Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control. We do not have the freedom we think we have (Harris, 2012)

Farewell to the purpose-driven life. Whatever is in our brain driving our lives from cradle to grave, it is not purposes. But it does produce the powerful illusion of purposes (Rosenberg, 2011).

Eddy Nahmias (2015) has suggested that we call their position “willusionism.”

I submit that this idea is wrong – free will is not an illusion. Now, this is an illusion!

tp cafe wall blog

The argument that a particular experience is illusionary presupposes that other experiences are veridical. Indeed we only know that something is illusory if we can prove by some other experience that reality has been distorted. Despite the illusion of the tilting tiles in Richard Gregory’s café-wall, we can prove with a spirit level that they are actually all horizontal.

tp cafe wall with spirit level blog

So in order to show that a particular experience of volition is illusionary, there would have to be other experiences of volition that are not illusionary and that are demonstrably different form the one considered illusionary.

Those who have proposed that free will is an illusion also point to clear evidence that we often do not know why we behave in a particular way. Psychoanalysis has long shown that we invent plausible but false reasons for how we act. This quotation is from Ernest Jones, one of Freud’s early disciples:

… the large majority of mental processes in a normal person arise from sources unsuspected by him. … No one will admit that he ever deliberately performed an irrational act, and any act that might appear so is immediately justified by distorting the mental processes concerned and providing a false explanation that has a plausible ring of rationality (Jones, 1908).

The psychoanalytic idea of rationalization has been supported by numerous recent psychological studies showing the effects of subliminal stimulation, the extent of our unconscious prejudices, and the vagaries of intuitions. We often are far more certain about things than we should be on the basis of the actual evidence (Burton, 2008).

Michael Gazzaniga’s studies of split-brain patients showed how the left hemisphere can invent totally inaccurate explanations for our actions. He suggests that the left-hemisphere language-system tries to make sense of our experience but that sometimes the story it comes up with is false:

It is the left hemisphere that engages in the human tendency to find order in chaos, that tries to fit everything into a story and put it into a context … even when it is sometimes detrimental to performance (Gazzaniga, 2011).

So perhaps we are always wrong? I think not. Just like the argument from illusion, the argument from rationalization only works if we are sometimes right. We have to know the real explanation in order to show that our rationalization is false.

Nature of Free Will

Only a small part of what we do is under conscious or controlled processing. Most of what we do occurs automatically. We are therefore often mistaken about why we acted in a particular way. We are not aware of causes outside of ourselves or hidden from conscious scrutiny, and we may invent reasons that are unrelated to what actually occurred, so that we can make sense of ourselves and our actions.

Nevertheless, we sometimes come to a decision about how to act by deliberately weighing the future consequences of several possible actions and choosing the most appropriate. We bring to bear on the problem all that we have so far learned about what things entail. For really important decisions, we often consult with others. We seek advice about what to do, ask our friends how they would decide in our position, and present scenarios for their comments. Freedom is inherently social. As mentioned above in relations to Dan Dennett’s compatibilism, free will has something to do with human knowledge and communication.

The future does not determine the present. That is not the way time flows. But the imagined future can determine the present. Once a feedback loop is created, time and causality become complicated. In causal circles, cause and effect can be simultaneous rather than sequential. Once we conceive of consequences, the future becomes part of the present and we can base our actions on how the future will (or should) be.

imagined future blog

These ideas of the “imagined future” are similar to the concept of episodic simulation proposed by Dan Schachter and his colleagues (Schachter, 2012; Szpunar et al., 2014) and the thoughts behind Carl Hoefer’s Freedom from the inside out (2002).

Such future-directed thought can have a top-down effect on the present. In particular, acts of free will can form a “self” – a set of predispositions to act in a characteristic way, sometimes automatically and sometimes deliberately (Kane, 2011, 2014).

Every undetermined self-forming choice is the initiation of a novel pathway into the future, whose justification lies in that future and is not fully explained by the past.” (Kane, 2011)

In a way the exercise of free will is like setting a legal precedent. Past decisions can then contribute to present choices.

Return to the Scenario

And so we return to the hypothetical wager from the beginning of this post. Should we bet that our actions cannot be predicted? Will it be possible 20 years from now for a brilliant neuroscientist to predict our actions before they occur?

In the experiments of Eddy Nahmias and colleagues (2014), subjects were asked about just such a scenario: a future neuroscientist reads the brain activity of a person called Jill and predicts what Jill will do. More than 80% of subjects accepted that this will be possible, but still claimed that Jill has free will if she is acting according to her own reasons. They believe that “the brain scanner is simply detecting how free will works in the brain” (Nahmias, 2015).

The astute among you may wonder whether during the scan you could fervently and honestly intend to press the red button. But then, once you have made your bet, on second thought you might wilfully decide to press one of the other buttons. After all, even at the last millisecond you can change your mind. You do not usually do this. That is why the brain scanner can often predict your behavior. But you always can change your mind.

I would take the bet.

Conclusion

I have considered physical determinism and pointed out its limitations in quantum uncertainty, chaos and incomputability. I have shown that complete determinism is in logical conflict with free will. I have reviewed some of the evidence that suggests that our unconscious brain determines what we might falsely believe to be our free choices. And I have refused to accept that evidence, arguing that we are still free whenever we base our actions on an evaluation of their consequences.

Determinism rules but only within limits. At the level of the atom there is quantum uncertainty. At the level of the brain there is conscious choice.

In our brains, most of what happens follows the laws of determinism, with the past causing the present and the present causing the future. Most of what we do is unconscious. Yet some acts are deliberately chosen after a conscious evaluation of what will happen. These are as much determined by the imagined future as by the actual past. As such they are both determined and free.

Note: This posting was derived from a talk given at the Rotman Research Institute Annual Conference. A pdf of the slides and the notes for the talk is available for download.

References

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Baumeister, R. F., Masicampo, E. J., & DeWall, C. N. (2009). Prosocial benefits of feeling free: Disbelief in free will increases aggression and reduces helpfulness. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 260-268.

Binder, P.-M. (2008). Theories of almost everything. Nature, 455, 884-885.

Bourget, D. & Chalmers, D. J. (2014). What do philosophers believe? Philosophical Studies, 170, 465-500.

Burton, R. A. (2002). On being certain: believing you are right even when you’re not. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Collins, G. P. (2009). Within any possible universe, no intellect can ever know it all. Scientific American, March, 2009,

Dennett, D. C. (1978). Brainstorms: Philosophical essays on mind and psychology. Montgomery, VT: Bradford Books. (Chapter 15. On giving libertarians what they say they want. pp. 286-299).

Dennett, D. C. (2003). Freedom evolves. New York: Viking.

Earman, J. (1986). A Primer on Determinism. Dordrecht: Reidel.

Edelman, G. (1987). Neural Darwinism. The theory of neuronal group selection. New York: Basic Books.

Filevich, E., Kühn, S., & Haggard, P. (2013). There is no free won’t: antecedent brain activity predicts decisions to inhibit. PLoS ONE 8(2): e53053. doi:10.1371/ journal.pone.0053053

Fried, I., Mukamel, R., & Kreiman, G. (2011). Internally generated preactivation of single neurons in human medial frontal cortex predicts volition. Neuron, 69, 548–562.

Gazzaniga, M. S. (2011). Who’s in charge? Free will and the science of the brain. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Graffin, G., & Provine, W. (2007). Evolution, religion and free will. American Scientist, 95(4), 294-297

Harris, S. (2012). Free will. New York: Simon & Schuster (Free Press).

Hilgevoord, J., & Uffink, J. (2006). The Uncertainty Principle. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Hoefer, C. (2002). Freedom from the inside out. In C. Callender (Ed.) Time, Reality and Experience. (pp. 201–222). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Hoefer, C. (2010). Causal determinism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Hoffstaedter, F., Grefkes, C., Zilles, K., & Eickhoff, S. B. (2013). The “What” and “When” of self-initiated movements. Cerebral Cortex, 23, 520-530.

Ismael, J. (2015). Quantum mechanics. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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Kane, R. (2011). Rethinking free will: New perspectives on an ancient problem In R. Kane (Ed.) Oxford handbook of free will. 2nd Edition. (pp 381-404). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kane, R. (2014). Acting ‘of one’s own free will: Modern reflections on an ancient philosophical problem. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 114, 35-55.

Laplace P. S. (1812, revised 6th edition 1840, translated by Truscott, F.W. & Emory, F. L., 1902, reprinted 1951) A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities, New York: Dover Publications.  (quotation is from p.4)

Libet, B., Wright, E. W., Jr. & Gleason, C. A. (1982). Readiness-potentials preceding unrestricted “spontaneous” vs. pre-planned voluntary acts. Electroencephalography and Clinical Neurophysiology, 54, 322-35.

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Libet, B. (1985). Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will in voluntary action. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 8, 529-566.

Lloyd, S. (2012). A Turing test for free will. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, A 28, 3597-3610.

Lorenz, E. (1996). The essence of chaos. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Lorenz, E. (2005). Quoted in 2013 by C. M. Danforth on his blog Mathematics of Planet Earth, Chaos in an atmosphere hanging on a wall.

Nahmias, E., Morris, S., Nadelhoffer, T, & Turner, J. (2005). Surveying freedom: Folk Intuitions about free will and moral responsibility. Philosophical Psychology, 18, 561–584.

Nahmias, E., Shepard, J., & Reuter, S. (2014.) It’s OK if ‘my brain made me do it’: People’s intuitions about free will and neuroscientific prediction. Cognition, 133, 502–516.

Nahmias, E. (2015). Why we have free will. Scientific American, 312(1), 76-79.

Rosenberg, A. (2011). The atheist’s guide to reality: Enjoying life without illusions. New York: W.W. Norton.

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van Inwagen, P. (1983). An essay on free will. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

van Inwagen, P. (2008). How to think about the problem of free will. Journal of Ethics, 12, 327-341.

Vohs, K. D., & Schooler, J. (2008). The value of believing in free will: Encouraging a belief in determinism increases cheating. Psychological Science, 19, 49-54.

Wegner, D. M. (2002). The illusion of conscious will. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Wolpert, D. H. (2008). Physical limits of inference. Physica D, 237(9), 1257–1281. (For lay summaries see Binder, 2008, and Collins, 2009).

Wright, R. (1994). The moral animal: Evolutionary psychology and everyday life. New York: Pantheon Books.




Numinous Experience

This post considers the nature of the human experience of the “numinous:” the sensation that one is the in the presence of something beyond comprehension or control. The term is difficult to define. Other words that overlap in meaning are “sublime,” “sacred” and “transcendent” when referring to the source of the experience, and “awe,” “reverence” and “ecstasy” when describing the state of mind induced.

tao te ching 71 borderThe numinous is an essential component of religion. However, the scriptures warn that understanding the numinous may not come easily. Verse 71 from the Tao Te Ching (dào dé jīng,The Book of the Way of Virtue) by Lao Tzu claims that

zhī bù zhī shàng
bù zhī zhī bìng

The Chinese characters go from top to bottom and from right to left. Red Pine (2009) provides a direct translation:

To understand yet not understand
is transcendence
Not to understand yet understand
is affliction

Perhaps the words mean that we should try to understand what we do not know because not to do so leads to suffering. However, I may miss the sense as much as I mar the pronunciation when I try to speak the words.

Meaning of the “Numinous”

The word “numinous” derives from Latin word numen, meaning divinity, often the god or local presiding spirit of a particular place. The word ultimately comes from the Greek neuein for nodding, and may represent the barely perceptible nodding of a divine idol when it approves of being worshipped or grants a wish.

The numinous is essential to religion. William James (1902) suggested that religion

consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto. (p 53)

He further suggested that this might derive from a feeling of being in the presence of something beyond the grasp of our normal five senses:

It is as if there were in the human consciousness a sense of reality, a feeling of objective presence, a perception of what we may call ‘something there,’ more deep and more general than any of the special and particular ‘senses’ by which current psychology supposes existent realities to be originally revealed. (p. 58)

The term “numinous” was first used to describe this feeling by Rudolf Otto (1917). He considered it to be the state of a creature in the presence of its creator:

I propose to call it ‘creature-consciousness’ or creature-feeling. It is the emotion of a creature, submerged and overwhelmed by its own nothingness in contrast to that which is supreme above all creatures (pp. 9-10).

He also described it as the mysterium tremendum – “terrible mystery.” The experience of the numinous varies:

The feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide, pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship. It may pass over into a more set and lasting attitude of the soul, continuing, as it were, thrillingly vibrant and resonant, until at last it dies away and the soul resumes its profane, non-religious mood of everyday experience. It may burst in sudden eruption up from the depths of the soul with spasms and convulsions, or lead to the strangest excitements, to intoxicated frenzy, to transport, and to ecstasy. (pp. 12-13).

Otto described five “elements” of the numinous experience. First is “awefulness.” In the monotheistic religions this is also called the “fear of God.” Second is “overpoweringness,” or majestas. This invokes the humility of the creature in the presence of his creator. Third is “urgency.” This is the sense of an active will or living power in charge of the universe. Fourth is the idea that the numinous is “wholly other.” In mysticism this is described as the experience of the void or nothingness. The abyss is a recurring image. The numinous

has no place in our scheme of reality but belongs to an absolutely different one, and which at the same time arouses an irrepressible interest in the mind. (p. 29)

This idea leads to the fifth characteristic of the numinous: “fascination.” The experience entrances as well as bewilders. Otto considered this the Dionysiac element of the numinous, that which we describe as intoxication or ravishment.

C. S. Lewis (1940) used the idea of the numinous to explain how one can believe in God when the existence of suffering makes the concept of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God illogical. He described the feeling as being in the presence of a mighty spirit:

You would feel wonder and a certain shrinking – a sense of inadequacy to cope with such a visitant and of prostration before it – an emotion which might be expressed in Shakespeare’s words “Under it my genius is rebuked.” This feeling may be described as awe, and the object which excites it as the Numinous. (p. 14).

In recent years, cognitive psychologists have considered the numinous under the rubric of “awe.” This combines cognitive uncertainty and intense emotion (Keltner & Haidt, 2003):

[A]we involves being in the presence of something powerful, along with associated feelings of submission. Awe also involves a difficulty in comprehension, along with associated feelings of confusion, surprise, and wonder.

A final aspect of the numinous that we might consider is the sense that one is being perceived as much as perceiving. This quotation is from Christian Wiman, a poet, in a book called My Bright Abyss (2013):

At such moments it is not only as if we were suddenly perceiving something in reality we had not perceived before, but as if we ourselves were being perceived. (p. 82)

In summary, the experience of the numinous combines three main characteristics

(i) a sense of being in presence of something beyond comprehension or control.

(ii) an intense emotional arousal, combining fear and wonder, like the feeling at the edge of an abyss.

(iii) a state of uncertainty and a need to do something about it.

 

The Context of Numinous Experiences

The experience of the numinous parallels the experience of the real world. In general we experience something, derive from that experience a set of beliefs, and then act according to those beliefs in order to gain more experience. This overlapping sequence is illustrated in the following figure, the upper portion of which derives from a similar representation by Lewis-Williams and Pierce (2005, p.25).

experience dark

When dealing with the real world we create knowledge that then allows us to act within that world. The experience of the numinous leads to faith and faith lead to practices that bring about further interaction with the numinous. For example, revelations can lead to conversion to a faith that promotes prayer and meditation to enhance the experience of the numinous.

caravaggio damascus border

Michelanglo Merisi da Caravaggio, 1601, The Conversion on the Way to Damascus, Church of Santa Maria del Populo, Rome.

An intense experience of the numinous can lead to a complete re-thinking of one’s life.  On the road to Damascus the persecutor Saul had a vision that led to him becoming the Apostle Paul:

And it came to pass, that, as I made my journey, and was come nigh unto Damascus about noon, suddenly there shone from heaven a great light round about me.

And I fell unto the ground, and heard a voice saying unto me, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? (Acts 22:6-7)

The nature of Saul’s vision is not known. Some have suggested that it might have been epileptic in origin. Yet the effect is perhaps more important than the cause.

Visions are not as common in our present day as they seemed to in the past. Nowadays, we have only the artistic representation of experiences from earlier times – the numinous at second-hand.

Once a religion is founded, behaviors are promoted to maintain the link to the original numinous experience. The mainstay of the Eastern religions is the process of meditation. The goal is to lose the self, to dissolve into the great sea of being. Western religions tend to prayer more than meditation. Communing with a personal God rather than dissolving in a Universal Force.

teresa border

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1652, The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome

Though mainly peaceful, both prayer and meditation can become ecstatic. Saint Teresa’s experience of the angel was as sexual as it was ascetic:

I saw in his hand a long spear of gold, and at the iron’s point there seemed to be a little fire. He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart, and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God. The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it. The soul is satisfied now with nothing less than God (Teresa of Avila, 1581, 29:17).

 

The numinous is not necessarily related to religion. The romantic revolution led to the search for the numinous in nature, often described as the “sublime:”

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern
Abbey, William Wordsworth, 1798

The term “sublime” has multiple meanings (Saint-Girons, 2014). In the context of Wordsworth’s poem it is used in the manner of Burke in his to mean something that evokes both terror and delight.

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. When danger or pain press too nearly, they are incapable of giving any delight, and are simply terrible; but at certain distances, and with certain modifications, they may be, and they are delightful, as we every day experience. (pp. 13-14).

The numinous can come from drugs as well as devotion. Wordsworth’s friend Coleridge’s visions of Kubla Khan were induced by opium. In the latter half of the twentieth century psychedelic experiences became a common way to seek the numinous:

Take me on a trip upon your magic swirlin’ ship
My senses have been stripped, my hands can’t feel to grip
My toes too numb to step, wait only for my boot heels
To be wanderin’
I’m ready to go anywhere, I’m ready for to fade
Into my own parade, cast your dancing spell my way
I promise to go under it.
Bob Dylan, Mr Tambourine Man, 1967

The near-death experience is another way to the numinous.The anoxic brain is likely awash in psychodelic chemicals. Yet, there is no doubt of the experience, or the memory of an ascent toward the light.

Numinous experiences of whatever kind tend to make people change their thinking. This can lead to a religious belief system or faith. Faith fosters practices, such as meditation, prayer, and asceticism, that promote further numinous experiences.

 

Psychological Studies of the Numinous Experience

Keltner and Haidt (2003) reviewed our understanding of awe. Many different situations can elicit the mental state. We may awed in the presence of great natural beauty – sunsets, mountains, canyons, galaxies. Artistic creations can also elicit awe – paintings especially when large, music especially when loud, architecture especially when high. Great leaders and saints can trigger awe and devotion. Science can also bring forth the feeling – the ecstasy of theory rather than theology.

Awe has both emotional and cognitive characteristics. The two main emotions in the experience of awes are fear and wonder. Essential to the experience of awe is an incomplete understanding of what we are experiencing. The vastness of what we perceive overwhelms our cognitive ability. There is a pressing need to come to grips with the source of our confusion and uncertainty.

[A]we involves a need for accommodation, which may or may not be satisfied. The success of one’s attempts at accommodation may partially explain why awe can be both terrifying (when one fails to understand) and enlightening (when one succeeds).

The experience of the numinous often leads to a belief in supernatural powers. A recent psychological study by Valdesolo and Graham (2014) investigated how this comes about. Subjects were exposed to two conditions. In one they watched awe-inspiring videos of sunsets, mountains, canyons and galaxies. In another they watched humorous videos of animal behavior. Their emotional experience (awe, positivity or neutral) was quantified using simple scales.

Two questionnaires were administered. One determined the subject’s ability to tolerate uncertainty: “I feel uncomfortable when I don’t understand the reason why an event occurred in my life” Another determined the subject’s belief in supernatural forces: “The events that occur in this world unfold according to God’s or some other nonhuman entity’s plan.” A correlational analysis showed that awe induced by the experimental manipulation increased belief in supernatural forces in those that were less able to tolerate ambiguity.

valdesolo border

The authors suggest that “in the moment of awe, some of the fear and trembling can be mitigated by perceiving an author’s hand in the experience.” In a related experiment, Kristin Laurin and her colleagues (2008) related the belief in God to the “desire to avoid the emotionally uncomfortable experience of perceiving the world as random and chaotic.” God is what we postulate to make the world make sense and to provide us comfort in the face of deep emotions.

The numinous induces emotional as well as cognitive effects. However, we understand much less about our emotions than about our thoughts. The complex array of human emotions can be considered as mixtures of some primary states. Six basic emotions generally considered: happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, and disgust. Other emotions were considered as combinations of these primary states. Thus hatred may be a combination of anger and disgust. In a recent paper describing computer algorithms for recognizing human emotions from facial expressions, Du and his colleagues (2014) have suggested that awe is a combination of surprise and fear.

Awe may be more complex. The experience of the numinous involves attraction as well as withdrawal: orientation toward as well as flight from, heart rate slowing as opposed to speeding. The mysterium tremendum is often also considered the mysterium fascinans.

curiosity borderSome categorizations of emotion include curiosity: that which leads us to explore our environment. Curiosity (or “interest”) is an emotional state, personality trait or motivational drive that becomes manifest in a situation where there is either a lack of arousal (boredom) or a disparity between what one experiences and what one understands (information-deprivation) (Litman, 2005). Curiosity is prominent in children. The main facial aspects of curiosity are the fixed stare, widened eyelids and pursed lips (Reeve, 1993).I suggest that the numinous induces curiosity as well as fear and uncertainty.

The numinous is difficult to describe – indeed it is often called ineffable, that which passes understanding. In the dark night of the soul a cloud of words appears as a possible summary of the psychology of the numinous:

numinous word cloud

The experience of the numinous can be induced (pale yellow) by natural beauty, by supernatural effects, by charismatic people and by works of art. It can be fostered by various religious behaviors (orange). The numinous induces both cognitive and emotional responses. The main cognitive effects (blue) are confusion and uncertainty. The main emotional effects (light red) are fear and wonder. We must try to cope with these effects through processes of accommodation (purple) so that we might reach enlightenment and exaltation.

 

Neuroscientific Studies of the Numinous

Unfortunately, we have not been able to determine specific brain concomitants of the numinous experience. Many regions are active and these interact in as yet unknown ways. The three main areas are the prefrontal regions, especially those active during the processing of theory of mind, the temporal regions, especially those related to emotions, and the parietal regions, where different perceptual modalities come together.

Neurological approaches to the numinous have involved studies of both epilepsy and brain lesions. The numinous experience may be part of the aura of an epileptic attack. Fyodor Dostoyevsky suffered from epilepsy, and we presume that the seizures of Prince Myshkin in The Idiot reflect his own experience:

His mind, his heart were lit up with an extraordinary light; all his agitation, all his doubts, all his worries were as if placated at once, resolved in a sort of sublime tranquility, filled with serene harmonious joy, and hope, filled with reason and ultimate cause.

Although the origin of Dostoyevsky’s seizures is unknown, most consider them as temporal lobe epilepsy. Surveys show that about 4 % of patients with temporal lobe epilepsy have religious or mystical experience either in the aura or in the post-ictal state (Devinsky & Lai, 2008). The experience is much more likely pleasant than not.

Attempts to trigger the numinous experience in normal subjects by magnetic stimulation of the temporal lobe (Persinger, 2002) have not been replicated (Granqvist et al., 2005). The stimulus levels were likely too low to have any neuronal effect, and the numinous experiences reported were probably related to suggestion rather than to stimulation.

Olaf Blanke and his colleagues (2004) studied five patients who reported out-of-body experiences and found lesions in the temporo-parietal region of the brain. This region where the different perceptual systems come together may be important in the representation of the self within a world. Losing oneself and becoming swept away in a more universal experience may therefore result from damage to these regions. This area of the cortex is very sensitive to anoxia since it is at the furthest reaches of the cortical vascular supply. Some have suggested that the prophets who received divine revelations when they went up into the mountains might have been particularly susceptible to hypoxia (Arzy et al., 2005). A similar hypothesis can be made for the near-death experience.

The electrical activity of the human brain changes markedly during the numinous experience. Both alpha and theta activity significantly increase during meditation (e.g. Cahn & Polich, 2006; Cahn et al., 2013; Tsai et al, 2013). The problem is that we do not really know what these rhythms mean in terms of brain processing. Furthermore, we do not know whether the rhythmic changes are an essential part of the meditation process or simply a side-effect. The alpha rhythm is likely an idling activity generated when the visual cortex is not processing information. Theta activity can occur in drowsiness and in emotional arousal. In the sixties, seekers of the numinous trained their brains to increase their alpha rhythm. Whether or not such biofeedback brought forth revelations independently of the pharmaceuticals that were its frequent concomitants remains unknown. As well as changing the ongoing EEG rhythms, meditation also alters the electrical activity evoked or induced by external stimuli (Cahn et al., 2013). Again we have difficulty determining what this means for the meditative state because we do not really know what these changes indicate.

Functional MRI studies of the numinous experience are difficult. Mystic visions may not come easily in a multi-Tesla magnetic field. Many experiments have occurred and many manipulations have been made (a non-critical review is Fingelkurts & Fingelkurts, 2009). Some studies are woefully inadequate in terms of their design and analysis. Others are intriguing but founder on the difficulty of setting up experimental manipulations that can lead to a sense of the numinous within the confines of the magnet. Two sets of studies illustrate the problems.

Beauregard and his colleagues studied Carmelite nuns as they recalled mystical experiences (Beauregard et al., 2006, 2008). They found multiple regions active in comparison to the resting state, most prominently in the inferior frontal, temporal and parietal regions.

Kapogiannis and his colleagues used a much less effective manipulation – subjects either evaluated religious statements or discriminated fonts (Kapogiannis et al., 2009, 2014). Their only significant finding related to a belief in God’s lack of involvement in the world. The brain only betrayed its lack of faith.

Perhaps the numinous is in the interactions of networks rather than the activity of neurons. Brain connectivity is likely as important as brain activity (Yeo et al., 2011). A recent study of meditation by Xu and his colleagues (2014) showed activity mainly in the default, frontoparietal, and limbic networks. The default network involving frontal, parietal and temporal regions is typically active during resting control conditions when the brain is not involved in the experimental task. Intriguingly, the default network was more active during meditation than during the normal resting state. Perhaps the default mode of the human cerebral cortex allows the experience of the numinous, at least in the sense of the brain freely thinking without external constraint. When we withdraw from the world and look inward, our thoughts often turn to matters of philosophy. As Alfred North Whitehead (1926) said “Religion is the art and theory of the internal life of man.”

 

Overview

Although the numinous experience is the focus of scripture and the basis for religious belief, we have little knowledge of how it occurs. We have some understanding of the psychology that underlies the experience. Emotions of fear and wonder combine with a cognitive state of confusion and uncertainty. The outcome of the experience can be some accommodation of our thinking to allow a larger view of the world. We know very little about how the brain mediates the numinous experience. This is unfortunate since it is so important. It is what changes lives.

louvre torso border

 

Rainer Maria Rilke wrote about his experience of the numinous while looking at a torso of Apollo in the Louvre. His poem Archaïscher Torso Apollos (Rilke, 1908) concludes:

           denn da ist keine Stelle,
die dich nicht sieht. Du mußt dein Leben ändern.

           for there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

 

 

 

 

References

Arzy, S., Idel, M., Landis, T., & Blanke, O. (2005) Why revelations have occurred on mountains? Linking mystical experiences and cognitive neuroscience. Medical Hypotheses, 65, 841–845

Blanke, O., Landis, T., Spinelli, L., & Seeck, M. (2004). Out-of-body experience and autoscopy of neurological origin. Brain, 127, 243–258.

Beauregard, M., & Paquette,V. (2006). Neural correlates of a mystical experience in Carmelite nuns. Neuroscience Letters, 405, 186–190.

Beauregard, M., & Paquette,V. (2008). EEG activity in Carmelite nuns during a mystical experience. Neuroscience Letters, 444, 1-4

Burke, E. (1757). A philosophical enquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful. London: R. and J. Dodsley.

Cahn, B. R., & Polich, J. (2006). Meditation states and traits: EEG, ERP, and neuroimaging studies. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 180–211.

Cahn, B. R., Delorme, A., & Polich, J. (2013). Event-related delta, theta, alpha and gamma correlates to auditory oddball processing during Vipassana meditation. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 8, 100-111.

Devinsky, O., & Lai, G. (2008). Spirituality and religion in epilepsy. Epilepsy & Behavior, 12, 636–643

Dostoyevsky, F. (1869, translated by Pevear, R., & Volokhonsky, L., 2002). The idiot. New York: Everyman’s Library. (Part II Chapter V, pp. 225-226).

Du, S., Tao, Y., & Martinez, A. M. (2014). Compound facial expressions of emotion.  Proceedings National Academy Sciences (USA), 111, E1454–E1462.

Fingelkurts, A. A., & Fingelkurts, A. A. (2009). Is our brain hardwired to produce God, or is our brain hardwired to perceive God? A systematic review on the role of the brain in mediating religious experience. Cognitive Processing, 10, 293-326.

Granqvist, P., Fredrikson, M., Unge, P., Hagenfeldt, A., Valind, S., Larhammar, D., & Larsson, M. (2005). Sensed presence and mystical experiences are predicted by suggestibility, not by the application of transcranial weak complex magnetic fields. Neuroscience Letters, 379, 1–6.

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