“The [University] is too much with us.”
–William Wordsworth … Although, I believe I may have ‘missquoted’ only slightly.
“The [University] is too much with us.”
–William Wordsworth … Although, I believe I may have ‘missquoted’ only slightly.
The professor was a strange man; indeed, there is little else about him upon which it can be agreed. We might hesitate to submit that he was strange in any conventional sense—it wasn’t that his voice was too high or his stature too short or anything of the like—no, it was rather something peculiarly unrelated to any identifiable quality of himself. He was strange in a strange sense. Though upon it, it most certainly may not be agreed, this author might be so bold as to assign him the label of pedantic; for he was dreadfully preoccupied with the ‘rules of proper English’ and had an unchecked phobia of sentences that ended in prepositions bordering on the psychotic, which caused him to go to great lengths to avoid such sentences, and in turn, to produce such clausal absurdities as ‘upon which it can be agreed’ and ‘upon it, it may not be agreed’ and other such cacophonic phrases as cause a terrible illness—much like the psychological illness of the pedant from whom they come forth—to trickle down the aural cavity and bounce around the nerves and guts like the metal object of a pinball game before settling in the stomach, an organ which is left most unsettled.
As to his appearance: he was tall and thin with grey hair. He tended to walk as if the soles of his shoes were covered with sharp pins into which he was perpetually jamming his feet with all his strength, delighting in the sheer misery of it. This unique stride was complemented by a grim visage with a frustrated brow and frowning lips that seemed only to further evidence the supposed nature of his footwear. Today, for whatever reason, he seemed particularly himself as he made his excruciating way down the hallway and into his lecture hall. By his right side he carried a worn out, leather brief-case that smelled like the remnants of ancient Babylon. This he jerked backward and forward with each step he made, paralleling the equally rigid choreography of his empty left hand which moved sternly as he walked. On his chest he wore the plainest tie that has ever come out of a clothing-factory on purpose, and this was covered in a grey, conservative suit that matched the colour of his hair (though we can only assume that this was a happy coincidence, as it is doubtless that the match was not present when he bought the suit almost three decades ago now). What must be said as to his footwear, we have already mentioned. In short, he might be said to have borne a countenance very similar to that of a statue predating the classical period but strangely wanting in its archaic smile.
Such was the form that greeted the fifty-some students breathing the air on the other side of the door to forum room 201. But perhaps upon the use of the word greeted in this context it cannot be agreed, for so warm a sentiment seems remote from the manner in which the lifeless artefact, lacking even the animation of classical contrapposto, indifferently slammed open the door and trudged his way to the desk in the centre of the forum upon which he flung his brief-case and jerked it open in a magnificent cloud of dust.
“Welcome to ‘A Neo-Archaic, Contemporary, Historical, and Revolutionary Observation of Nature, Ideas, Society, and Mankind’, abbreviated ‘ANACHRONISM’, course number 217. In this class, we will be exploring nature, ideas, society, and mankind through some of the most cutting-edge scholarship available on the subject. I trust you have all downloaded the syllabus on your mac-an-apple i-gadget inter-web machine tablets and will read along with me as I read out loud.”
The professor then spent the next half hour reading a painfully intricate document that would have very much resembled a document of law had it not been for all the ugly linguistic idiosyncrasies previously alluded to. When both he and his students realised, much to the surprise and disappointment of both parties, that he had reached the end of the document, there was an awkward silence filled only by the sound of the breathing previously mentioned. This persisted much longer than almost anyone could bear who wasn’t already accustomed to such exercises of self-inflicted pedagogic, podiatric, and pedantic torture as pressing pins into one’s foot. During this silence, the professor stared grimly and unrelentingly at each of the faces in the class. Finally, he spoke again:
“Who among you knows who Shakespeare was?”
Everyone raised their hands, and one impudent soul shouted, “Isn’t he the idiot responsible for English class?”
“Wrong!” the professor exclaimed, “He is not responsible for English class. He is dead, so you must use the past tense: He was the idiot responsible for English class.”
With this said, the professor let his brilliant knowledge of grammar fill the room in a moment of silence before beginning again.
“What was Shakespeare famous for?”
This sentence was followed by a silence of equal length, creating a nice little silence sandwich. Finally, some pedant spoke up.
“Shakespeare has been noted for his revolutionary innovations in English theatre and poetry, which thrust the Anglo-Saxon world into the literary renaissance and the future of the English language itself. These innovations drew on the works of ancient classical writers, most notably Terence and Plautus, through the use of natural sounding speech in the form of verse, especially iambic pentameter, and similar classical themes.”
The rest of the class was much relieved to hear this, both because it ended the silence, supplying the professor with a satisfactory answer, and because it meant that they didn’t have to make any such innovations, seeing as Shakespeare had already finished innovating the English language for them.
“No! That is not for what Shakespeare has been noted!” The professor exclaimed, “Don’t listen to her!” (he was referring to the pedant) “Now take this down in your notes: Recent scholarship has proven that Shakespeare was most famous for three things: (1) being dead, (2) never existing, and (3) being gay. The first of these is probably the most important. Shakespeare is dead! So don’t talk about him like he’s alive. Shakespeare does not ‘have an influence on poetry’; he has ‘had an influence on poetry’, but now he’s dead. The second of these is also important. Recent scholarship has proven that Shakespeare was not a real person. His plays were composed by a handful of clever men from Oxford and then misattributed to some made up character called ‘Shakespeare’, who doesn’t even know how to spell his own name. Finally, the third thing is probably that for which he is most famous. Shakespeare was gay. Recent scholarship has proven that the most interesting thing about Shakespeare’s writing is it’s gayness.”
The students all furiously took this down verbatim in their notes.
“So one of your essay prompts is going to be as follows: Was Shakespeare straight? Explain your reasoning in exactly five paragraphs. Be sure to use concrete examples and cite all sources properly.”
The students all took this down.
“So how will you answer this question?”
One student raised his hand and was called on: “I will write that by the Strawson Presupposition principle—which states that A is neither true nor false if it depends on B when B is false—I cannot answer that question. For Shakespeare’s sexual orientation is dependent on his existence, but because he did not exist, he was neither gay nor straight.”
“You said, ‘Shakespeare’s sexual orientation is dependent.’ But you should have said, ‘was dependent’. SHAKESPEARE IS DEAD! Don’t you kids ever listen?!”
“Anyway, that’s not the right answer. The right answer is: ‘No.'”
The students all wrote in their notebooks: ‘The answer to the essay question is ‘No.”
“Okay. Who here knows who Homer was?”
There was a pause, and an impudent soul, perhaps the same one who had made the earlier outbursting, made another: “He’s a yellow guy that eats donuts!”
“Wrong! He was a yellow guy that ate donuts.”
At this the pedant spoke up once again: “Homer was a poet from antiquity and one of the most influential poets ever to use an Indo-European language. His two major extant works are The Iliad and The Odyssey, epic poems of the classical oral tradition from which Virgil derived the poetic and thematic groundwork of his Aeneid, perpetuating the spread of the ancient poetic style in the works of later poets such as Dante and other poets of the dolce stil novo as well as John Milton in his Paradise Lost and even, arguably, the poetics of the entire western world.”
“No! Stop that! That is not for what Homer has been noted!” The professor was clearly getting quite frustrated. “Homer was most famous for three things: (1) being dead, (2) not existing, and (3) um … actually, I guess there are only two things; Homer was not necessarily gay, but he was an ancient Greek.”
The professor then went on to explicate each of these three things (one of which did not exist). After doing so, he moved on to several other discussions, each going the same way: a rude interruption from some impudent soul, a ‘correction’ of grammar, some silence and breathing, a pedantic comment, and finally, an explanation of the most cutting-edge scholarship on the subject, with a heavy emphasis on the fact that the subject of the discussion is dead. In this manner, the professor made his way across the western world in all its history and splendour, conquering it like Alexander the Great. In only a matter of minutes, he had managed to deface very nearly the whole of western culture, and indeed, of humanity itself. Dante, as it turns out, is best remembered for his political failure; Mozart for his promiscuity; C. S. Lewis for his atheism; Milton for his blindness; Beethoven for his deafness; Cicero for his demise; Albert Einstein for his bad grades; and Leonardo da Vinci for the very same thing which Shakespeare holds as his most prized contribution to western poetry. And when he had boiled these men into a stew of plainness, the world suddenly seemed as grim and as grey as the professor’s suit or hair. No man is great, no thing is beautiful, and most importantly, all of these men are dead.
But then, as the class sat contemplating the cutting-edge scholarship before them, observing these disgraceful men of western history, as they considered the abomination that is mankind, suddenly someone in the class had a paroxysm of poetry. It happens sometimes. He began an uncontrollable outbursting of unmetered speech: “I have of late,” he began tentatively at first, “but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth,” he paused patiently and gently at each punctuation mark, and one by one, the members of the class began to turn and listen to him, “forgone all custom of exercises, and indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory;” he spoke honestly, with a strange sense of emotion that seemed to entreat the audience to cry, but begged them to laugh at it’s awkward context. He went on: “this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’er-hanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.” His performance was, in itself, overwhelmingly moving, but in the context of a spontaneous outbursting, it seemed merely absurd. So the dominant reaction was muffled laughter.
The professor interrupted him: “Wait—what is that? What are you doing? Stop that!”
But he went on: “What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable; in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me.” Here he stopped of his own accord. And the room was silent, filled only with muddled laughter and breathing. As such, it became a peculiar atmosphere of disgraceful beauty—the hideous mockery of humanity that the professor had made mixed with the shameful laughter of the students and the quintessential eccentricity and seriousness of the performing student.
“What is that!” The professor demanded.
The pedant spoke up: “That was Hamlet’s speech to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the second scene of the second act of Hamlet, lines 318 through 332.”
At this, the professor was furious: “No! That’s not right! Shakespeare is most famous for being dead!” The man insisted. And now, it seemed the pins in his shoes must have finally pierced the last layer of his skin. He began to weep uncontrollably. He tried to restrain himself, and even tried to begin teaching again, “Shakespeare is dead!” he said. But he couldn’t stop weeping, so he packed his briefcase and headed for the exit, weeping and repeating that sentence over, “Shakespeare is dead!”
Just before the door shut behind him, some impudent soul shouted out after him, to correct his grammar, “No, Shakespeare was dead!”
The door shut, and the room grew still and silent again. The students sat in amusement and awe, wondering at the surreal passage of events to which they had just bore witness. Some students were entertained to no end, others were perplexed, and still others were simply tired of sitting through such pointless classes. It seems the only thing upon which it could be agreed regarding the professor is that he was a strange man.
Upon moving into my residence hall here at the university last week, I encountered a bit of difficulty. It seemed my plans were too complicated for the room. The microwave plug didn’t fit into the power strip and this meant that the whole apparatus I had formed—with the printer on top of the microwave and the microwave on top of the refrigerator—had to be relocated to a place in the room that would better accommodate for all the electrical connections. I had, from the start, opposed my bringing of so many appliances to school, but my parents insisted that I do so in order to make the place more comfortable and ‘home-like’.
After trying out a few different arrangements of the room, each one feeling more cramped than the last, I settled on stuffing all the appliances except the refrigerator into a small storage space in the upper part of the wardrobe and moving the furniture into the least confining arrangement possible. When I was all done with this, I felt quite remarkably liberated; suddenly the little space, which had seemed very much to resemble a prison only moments ago, transformed itself into a rather pleasant study and dormitory. Now I have a big beautiful desk basking in natural sunlight beside the window where I can lay out my orchestra scores to work (see figure 1).
I told my mum how I felt about this when I rang her up that evening. She and I both agreed that if I felt more comfortable without all the clutter, I didn’t need to use it, seeing as comfort was the original purpose of the supplies. As I write this, all of the mentioned supplies, along with several other items, are sitting in that storage place, waiting patiently to be brought home. The new order of my room is by no means minimalistic—aside from the refrigerator I mentioned, I also have here a good number of my books and my unicycle—but it is simple. That’s the beauty of it.
On the same day that I made these arrangements, I was thinking about economic styles of music, art, and writing. Among the many examples of the aesthetic I had in mind were a couple of scenes in Shakespeare, that popped into my head, as well as the opening line of Milton’s famous epic, which reads: “Of man’s first disobedience and the fruit of that forbidden tree”. Part of the brilliance of this line is how simply it conveys something so large and complicated. Instead of droning on and on pedantically to lay out the details of a theological framework for the ‘fall of man’, Milton leans into the lexical and philosophical associations already built into the English language—perhaps placed their directly by the hand of God himself—in order to discuss not only the hamartiology of an ‘original sin’ or ‘total depravity’, nor the soteriology of ‘salvation’, but the entire human understanding of all the associated ideas, dreamings, and truths that have been passed down via the Indo-European language from before the time of the Romans to the present, now to be contained in the single English word ‘fruit’.
You may have already sensed this by now if you read this blog often, but I am, quite frankly, all about complexity. I make nearly every form of art or study that I engage in as complicated as I possibly can. But the reason things ought to be so complex, in my mind, is because that’s the only way they can become simple. One of the greatest transformations that western languages have undergone over time is simplification. Dead languages often have very complicated grammars, and it is through these original complex systems that modern languages have come to posses the power they hold today in their much simpler forms. We might also note, however, the way this complexity supported something simpler even in the ancient languages themselves. If this post were written in Ancient Greek or Latin, you would probably be finished reading it by now (assuming you were as fluent in one of those languages as you are in English). Indeed, you would have probably finished reading a good while ago; the reason for this is that the more complicated grammars allowed for more economic communication—simpler sentences had more complicated meanings than in modern English.
I am not here by proposing that ‘less is more’. That’s ridiculous! Less is less. But somehow the God of the universe has been able to communicate to humanity everything they need to know in order to be self-conscious and self-willing creatures, and if so much is possible, then is it not our duty, as artists, thinkers, and human beings, to at least try, by virtue of that very possibility, to stuff the entire human experience into something portable and sharable?
The beauty of fractals is that no matter how much or how little of their detail you can make out, they look similar and appear the same.
Assignment: In an essay of one thousand words or less, discuss Shakespeare’s use of rhetorical methods and techniques to convey Macbeth’s hamartia.
Prompt: Is Macbeth responsible for his wife’s suicide? If so, why?