“Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel,” the bumbling Lord Polonius in Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet” tells his son Laertes in a rant of advice often repeated since as sage and sound. But who wants to be grappled with a metal belt? Neither is friendship a luxury cruise liner where one might go shopping for a friend. A rowboat, maybe, lost on some stormy night on some stormy sea in some stormy argument, a crew of two with only one oar. A lack of friends may be associated with loneliness, and one is often never so lonely as when part of a crowd in which one can find no partner. Acquaintances and neighbors are often confused with friends when they are not. Likewise, parents, children, and siblings, when impressed as friends are often the first to jump ship. A friend at court can hardly be trusted, neither is one’s cohort a circle of friends. A friend in need is not free. To simply like is not necessarily to befriend. What is the focus point of a circle of friends? One’s spouse must not be mistaken for one’s friend, nor one’s friend mistaken for one’s spouse. Friendship is not a vessel, unless it is a ship of fools.
Social distancing guidelines now include no more than 10 people gathered together in one place, and, anyway, to stay home. I grew up one of ten kids. The doors and windows to our house were never locked. I never even had a key to the place. And friends and friends of friends roamed freely across the threshold, in and out. A restriction of no more than 10 at any one time might have come as a welcome rule for my parents – but they rarely objected to visitors.
I’ve lived at 19 different addresses over time, never alone, not including the room in the garage at the back of our lot my dad and I built when I got back from the army and found my digs in the house usurped by younger siblings.
But I’ve lived in the house I’m in now for 30 years. It was built in 1907 in what was then a mostly truck farming community or trolley commute from downtown Portland. The street name is now Southeast 69th Avenue, but it was originally named East View Street. A house this old comes with stories, particularly one that has been home to several households over the years. Those stories are often told by neighbors who have overlapped stays with other neighbors.
Not long after we first moved in, I was digging around in the backyard and uncovered a large clam shell. The occupants just prior to us lived in the house 12 years before we moved in. The shell, we learned from one of our old-timer neighbors, predated those years. There had been a family, lived in our house, who hosted South Pacific sailors who regularly came to port for the annual Rose Festival (the first Rose Festival Parade was held downtown in 1907). One year, one of the sailors brought the shell as a gift for the house hosts. We learned from that same old-timer neighbor that another year one of the sailors died in the house. He collapsed from a heart attack in the entry room. His name was Joe. His host would later also die in the house, in the downstairs bathroom, also from a heart attack. His name was also Joe.
Lately, homebound by local decree, I’ve increased my walks around the neighborhood, reflecting on houses. Local neighborhood lore tells of one house that was once a tuberculosis sanatorium, another that was a brothel, another that was a small barbershop, another that was a local post office. It’s not a neighborhood of any spectacular historical interest. While a few of the houses might maintain historical value, there’s no doubt that in another hundred years they will all be replaced. The clam shell might still be somewhere around, though. Maybe something still will be living in it.
From Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” Act II:
Ham. Then is doomsday near: but your news is not true. Let me question more in particular: what have you, my good friends, deserved at the hands of Fortune, that she sends you to prison hither?
Guil. Prison, my lord!
Ham. Denmark’s a prison.
Ros. Then is the world one.
Ham. A goodly one; in which there are many confines, wards and dungeons, Denmark being one o’ the worst.
Ros. We think not so, my lord.
Ham. Why, then, ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me it is a prison.
Ros. Why, then, your ambition makes it one; ’tis too narrow for your mind.
Ham. O God, I could be bounded in a nut-shell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.
Polonius: What friends thou hast, add them fast, Lord Hamlet.
Hamlet: Polonius advises us to link our souls with hoopla,
When twice this same moon updates us,
But still to me she hath not chatted.
Polonius: Light lord, thy status in disconnect must be,
Causing you this dark and dour distress.
Hamlet: Fish not, sir; I fear she hath deleted me.
What post supports this knotted matter?
False light quickly fades, casting us in dark shadows.
Let the clouds betide, let the rains come
So thick and dark not the bark of the ark stays dry.
Polonius: Despair not, care not, Lord, care less than not.
Some new compeer will soon light your night
With comely links and notes bright.
Light be your aim, Lord, light your audience,
And this will give light to thee.
Hamlet: Nay, sir. In this book of faces there is but one for me,
And I am trapped in this light box like a wench in a nunnery.
“We look before and after,” Shelley told his quiet skylark, “and pine for what is not.” Shakespeare would have enjoyed Percy’s pun, knowing naught comes from knot, “like quills upon the fretful porcupine,” this from the ghost of Hamlet’s father, and of Hamlet’s replies, “a happiness that often madness hits on,” follows from the bumbling fool of wise quotes, Polonius. Hamlet suffers the curse of anxiety, and one imagines the prince of plotters distracted by his Facebooking and Twittering, there staging his feigned feelings, for his mood is not hopeful.
And to what do we owe this staged post? To Jill Lepore’s “Dickens in Eden: Summer vacation with ‘Great Expectations.’” But just this, Jill quoting from one Andrew Miller, academic from Indiana, who, Jill says, “…argued that the novel [Great Expectations] is defined by ‘the optative mode of self-understanding,’ an experience of modern life, in which everything is what it is but could have been something else” (New Yorker, 29 Aug. 56). Ah, where’s a physicist when you need one? For how does one understand oneself when one’s creation is a matter of chance? But the mood of chance may be ever hopeful for a changed ending, a substitute ending, a revised ending.
And this is McTeague country, Naturalism, where Trina wins a lottery, an experience of modern life, for she might have lost, as everyone else does, and is not winning the equivalent to losing? And we were still considering the Greenblatt (New Yorker, 8 Aug.), wondering if Rerum Natura might still come at a bargain, “By chance…By chance…By chance…” (29). But if everything happens by chance, why bother introducing any event as having happened by chance? Anyway, the chance of naught creates part of Hamlet’s anxiety, certainly, but even if he takes a Lucretius pill he still has his bad dreams – thus the not of the nutshell and infinite space.
In the pine, Shelley’s bird sings of jobs, of the disappearance of guilds, for what is not, and of winter in summer and the irony of discontent. This is the anxiety of our time, that it didn’t have to be this way; it “could have been something else.” Yet the physicist tells us that not only could it have been something else, it was something else; in fact, it was what it is and everything else. This is why we tell stories – like one of Leonard Cohen’s “lonesome and very quarrelsome heroes,” who would “like to tell my story before I turn into gold,” where gold is an antidote to anxiety.
There is no silence, Seneca argues in his “On Noise.” Our ears are held hostage to the confusion of random noises, the shout in the street, or the whispers of demons when we are trying to fall asleep. Our head is a house of bondage to sounds. We can not turn off the noise.
We are also bound to the noise of argument, the clashing of claims, the slashing evidences, and the war of warrants rumbling unseen like underground swells whose sounds reach the surface in shocks of recognition. Our proposals ring with self-interest. Our argument reveals what we value, where what we value is simply what we want, and where, paradoxically, what we want is not necessarily what is good for us. We ask for proof, but what is accepted as proof varies by community and shifts over time. We are like Doubting Thomas, led by our cultured incredulity to insist on touching the wounds, because we are afraid of metaphor, but that’s all we have – language is metaphor, no matter how cleverly we disguise it in objective, disciplined prose. We fear it because metaphor is magic: “This [bread] is my body.”
To argue or not to argue, that is always the question, for walking away in hope for peace in silence and solitude we run into Hamlet’s wall, for we can enjoy the infinite space of a nutshell only if that space is not full of our own personal nightmares.
All of life appears to be a single, linked argument, and argument is noise. We can’t turn it off, or even down, but even if we could, we ignore argument at our own peril, to our own detriment. But to listen to it 7×24 is deafening, where deafness isn’t the absence of sound, but sound’s surfeit, a flood of noise that crests the wall of reason.
We turn to the experts for advice. Passionless, but full of fraternal ethos, the academics put forth their peer-reviewed journals, works cited, but the syllabus is the argument in the marketplace, the rubric their evidence, and the classroom their warrant. We pick our topic as if choosing a weapon, and begin our argument with an either or fallacy. The either or fallacy is the sergeant-at-arms in our contemporary house of sound-bondage: you are conservative, proceed to room 108, where you will find your beliefs folded nicely in the bureau drawers; you are liberal, your stuff is stacked neatly in room 209. Safely in our academic room for the night, we are lulled by a false sense of security, but we can’t get to sleep, for we can’t avoid the first person.
We were told not to use the first person, and in that way we could escape our impressionistic impulses, but “This is incorrect,” Seneca says. “There is no such thing as ‘peaceful stillness’ except where reason has been lulled to rest. Night does not remove our worries; it brings them to the surface. All it gives us is a change of anxieties. For even when people are asleep they have dreams as troubled as their days. The only true serenity is the one which represents the free development of a sound mind.”
A sudden pause as I’m reading Seneca’s “On Noise.” Was that a pun, that “sound mind”? For it expresses the point I am trying to make exactly. “Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise,” John Cage said in his “The Future of Music: Credo” (1937). But Cage was never bothered by the noise: “When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.”
So to, our reading and listening of arguments: when we ignore the argument, we find it annoying, but listening to it carefully, we find that silence is denotative, noise connotative. One can easily imagine Cage living over Seneca’s bathhouse. In “Experimental Music” (1957), Cage suggests we should pay more attention to those arguments we did not intend: “…those who have accepted the sounds they do not intend – now realize that the score, the requiring that many parts be played in a particular togetherness, is not an accurate representation of how things are.” Ah, yes, for if we can’t accurately describe how things are, we can’t move on to how things should be.
“To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin,” says Mark Twain’s duke as he prepares to take down the house with an encore of Hamlet’s soliloquy. Where’s an English major when you need one? They were no doubt in short supply in the Mississippi Valley in the early nineteenth century, and their heyday from the late twentieth appears now to be in full wane. What can restore their numbers?
To take the meds, or not to take the meds; that is another question. Before you answer, read Louis Menand’s recent review, “Head Case: Can psychiatry be a science?,” in the March 1 New Yorker: “These complaints [confusion over what causes and cures depression] are not coming just from sociologists, English professors, and other troublemakers” (68). To be an English major or not to be an English major; whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to go broke reading or to take arms with others in self-incarceration in a corporate complex – but alas, those late twentieth century opportunities to cause trouble too are in full wane. What’s a poor boy to do?
Work, for one: “…people on the West Coast work,” Kenneth Rexroth said. “Ginsberg when he came out here, as he said in interviews, was working as a market researcher, which is just a shit job. It’s like being a floorwalker in a dime store. I said, ‘Why don’t you work? How much are you making? Forty-five dollars? You can’t live on forty-five dollars in San Francisco. That’s not money. Why don’t you go to work, get a job?’ Ginsberg said, ‘What do you mean?’ And I said, ‘Ship out…’ You come back with more bread than you know what to do with!’ In the East people don’t think like that” (Meltzer, 1971, p. 12*).
Some did, but many seem now to have forgotten this. A past issue of Reed College’s Reed Magazine, for example, contained an article by one of their English professors selling the English major; unfortunately, it was clear that the professor had never worked outside of academia, and had not much idea what one would do with one’s English major aside from finding shelter in academia – but that’s all over. Yet no mention in the article of Kafka’s time as a claim investigator for the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia (where he invented the hard-hat); of Ted Kooser’s stint at Lincoln Life; of Wallace Stevens’s career at The Hartford; of Tom Clancy maintaining his Life license even after he became a best-seller.
“Questions like these [being and nothingness, as Sartre put it] are the reason we have literature and philosophy. No science will ever answer them” (Menand, p. 74). Yet as most of today’s Hucks head out for the territory of science and technology, leaving the books to turn to dust, some professors seem to be hunkering down; how do you like this solution: “…it [solving the crisis in the Humanities] means finding creative ways to make life instructively hard, for a few years, for the broadest range of talented people of all sorts and conditions whom we can educate and then employ productively and decently”? This non-profound non-market solution comes to us courtesy of Anthony T. Grafton of Princeton who seems to miss the working point that Rexroth talked about and proves Menand’s point of stubborn resistance. In his New Republic critical reaction to The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in The American University (Menand, 2010), Grafton makes graduate school sound like joining the Jesuits; but who provides financial support for the Jesuits? For the young Ginsberg just starting out today, a job as a market researcher might be a sweet assignment.
“Oh, God,” Hamlet says, “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space were it not that I have bad dreams.” No bad dreams, no harrowing questions, no need for the philosopher or the English major. But while the meds, according to Menand’s review, might help some with some of the bad dreams, the harrowing questions persist.
*Meltzer, D. (1971). The San Francisco Poets. New York: Ballantine Books.