A highly specious philosophical concept of his which you might call lanternosophy

From Luigi Pirandello’s The Late Mattia Pascal (Il Fu Mattia Pascal). This extract is a patching of portions of chapter 13 in William Weaver’s translation. The whole can be found in Italian here:

To console me, Signor Anselmo tried to prove, with a lengthy line of reasoning, that my darkness was imaginary.

“Imaginary? This darkness?” I shouted at him.

“Be patient for a moment, and I’ll explain what I mean.”

And then he explained. (Perhaps he was also preparing me for the spiritualistic experiments which, this time, were to be performed in my room to divert me.) As I say, he expounded a highly specious philosophical concept of his which you might call lanternosophy.
Signor Anselmo did go on, first to declare that, alas, we human beings are not like the tree, which lives but does not feel. The earth, the sun, the air, the rain, and the wind, do not seem to the tree to be things different from itself: harmful or friendly things. But we, on the other hand, are born with a sad privilege: that of feeling ourselves alive. And from this a fine illusion results: we insistently mistake for external reality our inner feeling of life, which varies and changes according to the time, or chance, or circumstances.

And for Signor Anselmo this sense of life was like a little lantern that each of us carries with him, alight; a lantern that makes us see how lost we are on the face of the earth, and reveals good and evil to us. The lantern casts a broader or nar-rower circle of light around us, beyond which there is black shadow, the fearsome darkness which wouldn’t exist if our lantern weren’t lighted. And yet, as long as our lantern is kept burning, we must believe in that shadow. When at the end the light is blown out, will the perpetual night receive us after the brief day of our illusion? Or won’t we remain at the disposal of Existence, which will merely have shattered our trivial modes of reasoning?
Now I ask you this, Signor Meis: All this darkness, this enormous mystery about which philosophers at first speculated in vain and which even science doesn’t deny, though now it rejects investigation of it—suppose this darkness were simply a deceit like another, a trick of our mind, a fantasy which isn’t colored? Suppose we finally convinced ourselves that all this mystery doesn’t exist outside us, but only within us? That it’s a necessity, since we have our famous privilege of feeling life, our lantern in other words, as I’ve been saying? What if death, in short, which frightens us so much, didn’t exist and were only —not the extinction of life—but the gust of air that blows out our lantern, our unhappy sense of living, a fearsome, painful sentiment, because it is limited, defined by that fictitious shadow beyond the brief circle of weak light that we poor, lost fireflies cast around us, where our life is trapped, as if excluded for a while from the universal, eternal life to which we think we should one day return, though in reality we are already there and will stay there forever, but without the sense of exile that torments us? The boundary is an illusion, relative only to our poor light, our individuality: in the reality of nature it doesn’t exist. I don’t know if you’ll like the idea or not, but we have always lived and always will live with the universe. Even now, in our present form, we share in all the manifestations of the universe, but we don’t know it, we don’t see it, because, alas, this miserable light shows us only the little zone that it can reach . . . And even then, if it only showed us things as they are. But no, my dear sir! It colors things in its own way, and it shows us things that make us lament, though perhaps in another form of existence, we would laugh heartily over them, if we had mouths. Yes, Signor Meis, we would laugh at all the vain, stupid afflictions our lantern has caused us, at all the shadows, the strange, ambitious phantoms it cast before us, and at how we feared them!”

There should be a literary term for when an author puts their most fully developed and soberly stated observations in the mouth of one of their most foolish characters.

I think that life is a very sad bit of buffoonery

From an autobiographical letter of Luigi Pirandello’s written in 1912-1913 but only published in 1924 (October 15 in Le Lettere). I think this can stand as a good summary of his final novel I recently finished – One, No One, and One Hundred Thousand (Uno, nessuno e contomila):

I think that life is a very sad bit of buffoonery; because we have in ourselves, without being able to know how, why or where from, the need to deceive ourselves constantly with the spontaneous creation of a reality (one for each and never the same for all) which from time to time is discovered to be vain and illusory. Whoever has understood the game can no longer be deceived; but whoever can no longer be deceived can no longer enjoy the taste or pleasure of life. My art is full of bitter compassion for all those who deceive themselves; but this compassion cannot not be followed by the savage derision of the destiny which condemns man to deception.

Io penso che la vita è una molto triste buffoneria, poiché abbiamo in noi, senza poter sapere né come né perché né da chi, la necessità d’ingannare di continuo, noi stessi con la spontanea creazione di una realtà (una per ciascuno e non mai la stessa per tutti) la quale di tratto in tratto si scopre vana e illusoria. Chi ha capito il giuoco, non riesce più ad ingannarsi; ma chi non riesce più ad ingannarsi non può più prendere né gusto né piacere alla vita. Cosi è. La mia arte è piena di compassione amara per tutti quelli che s’ingannano; ma questa compassione non può non essere seguita dalla feroce irrisione del destino, che condanna l’uomo all’inganno


O, then we bring forth weeds, when our quick minds lie still

From Antony and Cleopatra (2.1.94-95), a note to myself as I begin a long holiday:

O, then we bring forth weeds,
When our quick minds lie still

And some other Shakespearean uses of weed/weeds as the noun in its not-clothes sense. It is not a favorite but is certainly a repeated metaphor:

Henry IV pt. II – 4.4:

Most subject is the fattest soil to weeds

Henry VI pt. II – 3.1:

Now ’tis the spring, and weeds are shallow-rooted;
Suffer them now, and they’ll o’ergrow the garden
And choke the herbs for want of husbandry.

Measure for Measure – 1.3:

We have strict statutes and most biting laws.
The needful bits and curbs to headstrong weeds,
Which for this nineteen years we have let slip;
Even like an o’ergrown lion in a cave,
That goes not out to prey.

Rape of Lucrece – 920-926:

‘Unruly blasts wait on the tender spring;
Unwholesome weeds take root with precious flowers;
The adder hisses where the sweet birds sing;
What virtue breeds iniquity devours:
We have no good that we can say is ours,
But ill-annexed Opportunity
Or kills his life or else his quality.

Richard II 3.4:

I will go root away
The noisome weeds, which without profit suck
The soil’s fertility from wholesome flowers.

Richard III 2.4:

‘Small herbs have grace, great weeds do grow apace:’
And since, methinks, I would not grow so fast,
Because sweet flowers are slow and weeds make haste.

Hamlet 1.5:

I find thee apt;
And duller shouldst thou be than the fat weed
That rots itself in ease on Lethe wharf,
Wouldst thou not stir in this.

Henry V 4.1:

For our bad neighbour makes us early stirrers,
Which is both healthful and good husbandry:
Besides, they are our outward consciences,
And preachers to us all, admonishing
That we should dress us fairly for our end.
Thus may we gather honey from the weed,
And make a moral of the devil himself.

Marquis de Sade’s Rue de Siam

A deviation from the norm- some music by the French post-punk band Marquis de Sade. I discovered them years ago digging in my father’s old albums but only recently came to love them after stumbling back into them as the second act in this early appearance of The Cure on French TV (starts about 13:20 but The Cure’s performance is more than worth watching first). This is the titular song from their second album, Rue de Siam (no clear relation to the Edith Piaf song of the same name).

First is the original album version:

And second the live version from their 16-09-17 reunion album. I find this the far better one:

Plus the lyrics, helpfully transcribed by a fan in the comments of the first video:

He’s walking down the Rue deSiam
No longer running, no longer talking
Towards the harbour and the quays
Attracted by the long thin wound
Of the sky watching him
Ant the sea calling out to him
D’you know ther’re several ways of dying
You can make a list of them
According to the difficulty
She would long for the night
Out of sheer weariness
Her eyes went dull for she had forgotten
And she gently subsides
Nothing will break on the carpet
No blood no blood, it’s red and it’s dirty
And feels so bad
He’s looking for evidence along the quays and the streets
Some of the pieces of his life
The reflection on the water
The shadow on the ground
Whisper to him something lurks behind his eyes
May be he will laugh about it
He’s walking down the Rue de Siam
Where all things vanish as he walks past
Even his memories of the bedroom
Where they designed the metal network
Whose strands grow taut and interweave
Bring us together
And bind us
And they pull us apart
In any case there’s nothing behind it all
The end of the path
Why repeat same gesture
When you’ve reached the limit ?
And you’re getting cramped in your suit
And no spot on your suit
No blood cos it’s red and makes me feel so sick
He’s looking for evidence along the quays and the streets
Some of the pieces of his life
The reflection on the water
The shadow on the ground
Whisper to him something lurks behind his eyes
May be he will laugh about it
He’s walking down the Rue de Siam
Further along there is nothing
The horizon is a smooth wall
Down which rejected illusions drip
That once drove him along
There’s several ways of dying
And one way of keeping alive
Floating between day and night
Sheltered from rough seas and time
Drifting along with the wind
But out of weariness
She asked for sleep to come
For eyes to shut for the sake of oblivion
Cos blood is red and blood it’s dirty
And it feels so bad
He’s looking for evidence along the quays and the streets
Some of the pieces of his life
The reflection on the water
The shadow on the ground
Whisper to him something lurks behind his eyes

And a bonus for the best post-punk blues album you’ll never hear otherwise, a later project of lead singer Philippe Pascal – Philippe Pascal & the Blue Train Choir:

In his mind he placed himself in the future in order to look back at the present, which he viewed as the past.

From Luigi Pirandello’s A Character’s Tragedy (La tragedia d’un personaggio), English from Eleven Short Stories / Undici Novelle. The Italian is online in full here:

This past Sunday I went into my study, for the audience, a little later than usual.

A long novel that had been sent to me as a gift and had been waiting over a month for me to read it kept me up till three in the morning because of the many reflections aroused in me by one of its characters, the only living one among a crowd of empty shadows.

His role was that of an unfortunate man, a certain Dr. Fileno, who thought he had found the most effective cure for every kind of ailment, an infallible prescription for consoling himself and all men for every public or private calamity.

To tell the truth, rather than a cure or a prescription, this discovery of Dr. Fileno’s was a method, which consisted of reading history books from morning till night and of looking on the present as history, too—that is, as something already very remote in time. And with this method he had been cured of all his ills, he had freed himself from every sorrow and every annoyance, and had found peace without the necessity of dying: an austere, serene peace, permeated with that certain sadness without regret which the cemeteries on the earth’s surface would still retain even after all the people on earth had died out.

Dr. Fileno hadn’t even the slightest thought of deriving lessons from the past for the present, because he knew it would be a waste of time and a game for fools. History is an idealized amalgam of elements gathered together in accordance with the nature, likes, dislikes, aspirations and opinions of historians. How, then, can this idealized amalgam be applied to living, effective reality, in which the elements are still separate and scattered? Nor, similarly, did he have any thought of deriving from the present any norms or predictions for the future. In fact, Dr. Fileno did just the opposite. In his mind he placed himself in the future in order to look back at the present, which he viewed as the past.

For example, a few days earlier a daughter of his had died. A friend had come to see him to condole with him over his misfortune. Well, he had found him as consoled already as if that daughter had died a hundred years before.

He had just taken that misfortune of his, while it was still recent and painful, and had distanced it in time, had relegated it to, and filed it away in, the past.

But you had to see from what a height and with how much dignity he spoke about it!

In short, Dr. Fileno had made a sort of telescope for himself out of that method of his. He would open it, but now not with the intention of looking toward the future, where he knew he would see nothing. He convinced his mind that it should be contented to look through the larger lens, which was pointed at the future, toward the smaller one, which was pointed at the present. And so his mind looked through the “wrong” end of the telescope, and immediately the present became small and very distant.

Quest’ultima domenica sono entrato nello scrittojo, per l’udienza, un po’ più tardi del solito.

Un lungo romanzo inviatomi in dono, e che aspettava da più d’un mese d’esser letto, mi tenne sveglio fino alle tre del mattino per le tante considerazioni che mi suggerì un personaggio di esso, l’unico vivo tra molte ombre vane.

Rappresentava un pover uomo, un certo dottor Fileno, che credeva d’aver trovato il più efficace rimedio a ogni sorta di mali, una ricetta infallibile per consolar se stesso e tutti gli uomini d’ogni pubblica o privata calamità.

Veramente, più che rimedio o ricetta, era un metodo, questo del dottor Fileno, che consisteva nel leggere da mane a sera libri di storia e nel veder nella storia anche il presente, cioè come già lontanissimo nel tempo e impostato negli archivii del passato.

Con questo metodo s’era liberato d’ogni pena e d’ogni fastidio, e aveva trovato – senza bisogno di morire – la pace: una pace austera e serena, soffusa di quella certa mestizia senza rimpianto, che serberebbero ancora i cimiteri su la faccia della terra, anche quando tutti gli uomini vi fossero morti.

Non si sognava neppure, il dottor Fileno, di trarre dal passato ammaestramenti per il presente. Sapeva che sarebbe stato tempo perduto, e da sciocchi; perché la storia è composizione ideale d’elementi raccolti secondo la natura, le antipatie, le simpatie, le aspirazioni, le opinioni degli storici, e che non è dunque possibile far servire questa composizione ideale alla vita che si muove con tutti i suoi elementi ancora scomposti e sparpagliati. E nemmeno si sognava di trarre dal presente norme o previsioni per l’avvenire; anzi faceva proprio il contrario: si poneva idealmente nell’avvenire per guardare il presente, e lo vedeva come passato.

Gli era morta, per esempio, da pochi giorni una figliuola. Un amico era andato a trovarlo per condolersi con lui della sciagura. Ebbene, lo aveva trovato già così consolato, come se quella figliuola gli fosse morta da più che cent’anni.

La sua sciagura, ancor calda calda, l’aveva senz’altro allontanata nel tempo, respinta e composta nel passato. Ma bisognava vedere da quale altezza e con quanta dignità ne parlava!

In somma, di quel suo metodo il dottor Fileno s’era fatto come un cannocchiale rivoltato. Lo apriva, ma non per mettersi a guardare verso l’avvenire, dove sapeva che non avrebbe veduto niente; persuadeva l’anima a esser contenta di mettersi a guardare dalla lente più grande, attraverso la piccola, appuntata al presente, per modo che tutte le cose subito le apparissero piccole e lontane.

Possibly a background connection – there’s a line in a Giovvani Verga story I happened to be reading today (Fantasticheria in Vita dei campi and translated as Picturesque Lives in the Penguin Cavalleria Rusticana and Other Stories collection) that describes someone as ‘contemplat[ing] life through the other end of a telescope.’

He had made a special study of that basic essence of being, and called it “the cave of the beast”

The opening of Luigi Pirandello’s It’s Not To Be Taken Seriously (Non è una cosa seria). The English is from Eleven Short Stories/Undici Novelle but the Italian is online in full here. This and another early story – La Signora Speranza – combined to form the base of a later play, Ma non è una cosa seria.

Perazzetti? No. He was certainly in a class of his own.

He would say things with the utmost seriousness, so that you wouldn’t even know it was him, while he looked at his extremely long, curved fingernails, of which he took the most meticulous care.

It’s true that then, all of a sudden, for no apparent reason . . . exactly like a duck: he would burst out into certain fits of laughter that were like the quacking of a duck; and he would wallow around in that laughter just like a duck.

Many, many people found in that very laughter the best proof that Perazzetti was crazy. Seeing him writhe with tears in his eyes, his friends would ask him:

“But why?”

And he would reply:

“It’s nothing. I can’t tell you.”

When people saw him laughing like that and refusing to say why, they got disconcerted, they stood there looking like fools and experienced a certain physical irritation, which in the case of the so-called “nervous types” could easily develop into a ferocious rage and an urge to scratch him.

Unable to scratch him, the so-called “nervous types” (and there are so many of them nowadays) would shake their heads furiously and say in reference to Perazzetti:

“He’s a lunatic!”

If, instead, Perazzetti had told them the reason for that quacking of his . . . But frequently, Perazzetti couldn’t tell them; he honestly couldn’t tell them.

He had an extremely active and terrifically capricious imagination, which, when he saw other people, would fly out of control and, without his volition, would arouse in his mind the most outrageous images, flashes of inexpressibly hilarious visions; it would suddenly reveal to him certain hidden analogies, or unexpectedly indicate to him certain contrasts that were so grotesque and comic that he would burst out laughing unrestrainedly.

How could he make other people share the instantaneous interplay of those fleeting, unpremeditated images?

Perazzetti knew clearly, from his own experience, how different the basic essence of every man is from the fictitious interpretations of that essence that each of us offers himself either spontaneously, or through unconscious self-deceit, out of that need to think ourselves or to be thought different from what we are, either because we imitate others or because of social necessities and conventions.

He had made a special study of that basic essence of being, and called it “the cave of the beast,” of the primordial beast lurking inside each of us, beneath all the layers of our consciousness which have been gradually superimposed on it over the years. A- man, when touched or tickled on this or that layer, would respond with bows, with smiles, would extend his hand, would say “good day” and “good evening,” might even lend five lire: but woe to anyone who went and poked him down there, in the cave of the beast: out would come the thief, the impostor, the murderer. It’s true that, after so many centuries of civilization, many people now sheltered in their cave an animal that was excessively subdued: a pig that said the rosary, a fox that had lost its tail.

In restaurants, for example, Perazzetti would study the customers’ controlled impatience. On the outside, good manners; on the inside, the donkey who wanted his grain immediately. And he enjoyed himself no end imagining all the species of animals who had their lair in the caves belonging to the men he was acquainted with: this man surely had an anteater inside him, and that man a porcupine and that other man a turkey, and so on.

Perazzetti? No. Quello poi era un genere particolare.

Le diceva serio serio, che non pareva nemmeno lui, guardandosi le unghie adunche lunghissime, di cui aveva la cura più meticolosa.

È vero che poi, tutt’a un tratto, senz’alcuna ragione apparente… un’anatra, ecco, tal’e quale! scoppiava in certe risate, che parevano il verso di un’anatra; e ci guazzava dentro, proprio come un’anatra.

Moltissimi trovavano appunto in queste risate la prova più lampante della pazzia di Perazzetti. Nel vederlo torcere con le lagrime agli occhi, gli amici gli domandavano:

– Ma perché? E lui:

– Niente. Non ve lo posso dire.

A veder ridere uno così, senza che voglia dirne la ragione, si resta sconcertati, con un certo viso da scemi si resta e una certa irritazione in corpo, che nei così detti «urtati di nervi» può diventar facilmente stizza feroce e voglia di sgraffiare.

Non potendo sgraffiare, i così detti «urtati di nervi» (che sono poi tanti, oggidì) si scrollavano rabbiosamente e dicevano di Perazzetti:

– E pazzo!

Se Perazzetti, invece, avesse detto loro la ragione di quel suo anatrare… Ma non la poteva dire, spesso, Perazzetti; veramente non la poteva dire.

Aveva una fantasia mobilissima e quanto mai capricciosa, la quale, alla vista della gente, si sbizzarriva a destargli dentro, senza ch’egli lo volesse, le pili stravaganti immagini e guizzi di comicissimi aspetti inesprimibili; a scoprirgli d’un subito certe strane, riposte analogie, a rappresentargli improvvisamente certi contrasti così grotteschi e buffi, che la risata gli scattava irrefrenabile.

Come comunicare altrui il giuoco istantaneo di queste fuggevoli immagini impensate?

Sapeva bene Perazzetti, per propria esperienza, quanto in ogni uomo il fondo dell’essere sia diverso dalle fittizie interpretazioni che ciascuno se ne dà spontaneamente, o per inconscia finzione, per quel bisogno di crederci o d’esser creduti diversi da quel che siamo, o per imitazione degli altri, o per le necessità e le convenienze sociali.

Su questo fondo dell’essere egli aveva fatto studii particolari. Lo chiamava l’«antro della bestia». E intendeva della bestia originaria acquattata dentro a ciascuno di noi, sotto tutti gli strati di coscienza, che gli si sono a mano a mano sovrapposti con gli anni.

L’uomo, diceva Perazzetti, a toccarlo, a solleticarlo in questo o in quello strato, risponde con inchini, con sorrisi, porge la mano, dice buon giorno e buona sera, dà magari in prestito cento lire; ma guai ad andarlo a stuzzicare laggiù, nell’antro della bestia: scappa fuori il ladro, il farabutto, l’assassino. E vero che, dopo tanti secoli di civiltà, molti nel loro antro ospitano ormai una bestia troppo mortificata: un porco, per esempio, che si dice ogni sera il rosario.

In trattoria, Perazzetti studiava le impazienze raffrenate degli avventori. Fuori, la creanza; dentro, l’asino che voleva subito la biada. E si divertiva un mondo a immaginare tutte le razze di bestie rintanate negli antri degli uomini di sua conoscenza: quello aveva certo dentro un formichiere e quello un porcospino e quell’altro un pollo d’India, e così via.

How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags!

From Macbeth (4.1.47-60):

How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags!
What is’t you do?
A deed without a name.
I conjure you, by that which you profess,
Howe’er you come to know it, answer me:
Though you untie the winds and let them fight
Against the churches; though the yesty waves
Confound and swallow navigation up;
Though bladed corn be lodged and trees blown down;
Though castles topple on their warders’ heads;
Though palaces and pyramids do slope
Their heads to their foundations; though the treasure
Of nature’s germens tumble all together,
Even till destruction sicken; answer me
To what I ask you.

And some contextualizing remarks from Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare’s Macbeth by Gary Wills (pg63-65).

When Macbeth sets out consciously to “know, by the worst means, the worst” from the witches (3.4.133-34), he is exposing himself to the same laws that made Sir Edward Kelley (in real life) and the Duchess of Gloucester (in Shakespeare’s play) guilty of necromancy—i.e., of witchcraft. He appeals to the witches in the name of their art, of their dark knowledge, no matter what its source (4.1.50-51):

I conjure you, by that which you profess,
How e’er you come to know it, answer me.

He has addressed them in terms of their office:

How now you secret, black, and midnight hags.

This is the way Ovid’s Medea begins to conjure Night: “Oh, Night,
you secret-keeper!”

Nox, ait, arcanis fidissima . . .

This is not an accidental resemblance. The model for Macbeth’s conjuring speech is the classical speech of Medea best known to Shakespeare in Ovid’s and in Seneca’s versions of it. It has long been recognized that Shakespeare based Prospero’s description of his magic on Ovid’s Medea; but Macbeth’s speech is just as close to that model.

Macbeth asks for knowledge on the basis of witches’ power to wrest, from an unwilling nature, compelled submission. To emphasize this he lists the classical adynata (feats beyond natural causation) that make up the canonical list of witches’ boasts. Medea, like other classical witches, says she can draw down the moon, move crops around, invert the seasons, reverse river currents, turn everything topsyturvy. Here is Macbeth’s use of that classical witch-catalogue (4.1.52-59):

[see quoted passage at top]

This kind of speech, often imitated from the classical sources, is almost always put into the mouth of a witch or the queen of witches. Ben Jonson [in The Masque of Queens], for instance, has Hecate say:

When we have set the elements at wars,
Made midnight see the sun, and day the stars;
When the winged lightning in its course hath stay’d,
And swiftest rivers have run back, afraid
To see the corn remove, the graves to range
While places alter and the seas do change;
When the pale moon, at the first voice, down fell
Poison’d, and durst not stay the second spell

Although Macbeth’s adynata, like Jonson’s, are classical, there is one Christian touch in Shakespeare that makes its “modern” witchcraft more explicit. Macbeth not only says he will set the winds at war—a typical feature of witch-boasting—but that he will make them war against the churches. That is an extra touch of malice that Doctor Faustus shares with Macbeth. Faustus says that he will “make my spirit pull his churches down” (Az.3.98).

And the Golding translation (what Shakespeare would have known) of the passage in Ovid (7.190-210ish):

…… O trustie time of night
Most faithfull unto privities, O golden starres whose light
Doth jointly with the Moone succeede the beames that blaze by day
And thou three headed Hecate who knowest best the way
To compasse this our great attempt and art our chiefest stay:
Ye Charmes and Witchcrafts, and thou Earth which both with herbe and weed
Of mightie working furnishest the Wizardes at their neede:
Ye Ayres and windes: ye Elves of Hilles, of Brookes, of Woods alone,
Of standing Lakes, and of the Night approche ye everychone.
Through helpe of whom (the crooked bankes much wondring at the thing)
I have compelled streames to run cleane backward to their spring.
By charmes I make the calme Seas rough, and make the rough Seas plaine,
And cover all the Skie with Cloudes and chase them thence againe.
By charmes I raise and lay the windes, and burst the Vipers jaw.
And from the bowels of the Earth both stones and trees doe draw.
Whole woods and Forestes I remove: I make the Mountaines shake,
And even the Earth it selfe to grone and fearfully to quake.
I call up dead men from their graves: and thee lightsome Moone
I darken oft, though beaten brasse abate thy perill soone.
Our Sorcerie dimmes the Morning faire, and darkes the Sun at Noone.

Lucan’s Erichtho may also be relevant, though the Pharsalia doesn’t seem to have been translated in full until over a decade after the play.

And I feel now the future in the instant

A small observation as I read Macbeth after rewatching the Ian McKellen and Judi Dench version yesterday. One atmospheric element of the play that I never feel in performances – because they move too fast for the ramifications to sink in – is what I, for lack of any better term, think of as cognitive time slippage. I guess you could also call it a sort of prolepsis but it would then need distinguishing against (my quite possibly poor understanding of) Gerard Genette’s narratological definition. What happens here is not a narrative sequence displacement (a looking forward to a future moment) but a cognitive displacement where the character’s mind seems genuinely to ‘slip’ out of the present and into the future. There are a few potential instances of this throughout the play but the first two will illustrate the point. First is Macbeth responding to the prophecy of the witches (1.3.132-43):

This supernatural soliciting
Cannot be ill, cannot be good: if ill,
Why hath it given me earnest of success,
Commencing in a truth? I am thane of Cawdor:
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
Against the use of nature? Present fears
Are less than horrible imaginings:
My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man that function
Is smother’d in surmise, and nothing is
But what is not.

The flow of grammar and sense are tough – and my commentaries are hesitant to commit to explanations – but the italicized lines seem to me a three-step mental movement in which the character’s mind shifts from an anchoring in the real present to one in the not real/imagined future. In performance the concluding ‘nothing is / But what is not.‘ sounds a sophism of sorts but in a leisurely reading the paradox of Macbeth’s present/is being replaced by the future/is not establishes a particular type of time-based mental disturbance – one that immediately infects Lady Macbeth as well. At their first meeting in 1.5.54 she greets him:

Great Glamis! worthy Cawdor!
Greater than both, by the all-hail hereafter!
Thy letters have transported me beyond
This ignorant present, and I feel now
The future in the instant.

All this is very different from Brutus’ lines in Julius Caesar (2.1.63-69) that my Arden edition calls up as comparison since Brutus there doesn’t lose sight of the act of imagining (and focuses on the interim anyway, which is a different issue of time):

Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream:
The Genius and the mortal instruments
Are then in council; and the state of man,
Like to a little kingdom, suffers then
The nature of an insurrection.

Brutus understands his activity as purely mental/internal while Macbeth (nothing is but what is not) and especially Lady Macbeth (transported me beyond … I feel now) seem to insist on having crossed a line into (imagined) physical manifestation.

At bottom remorse is only the effect of a certain way of looking at one’s self in a mirror

From Italo Svevo’s Novella del Buon Vecchio e della Bella Fanciulla, translated as The Nice Old Man and the Pretty Girl in the Melville House Art of the Novella series.

At bottom remorse is only the effect of a certain way of looking at one’s self in a mirror.

In fondo il rimorso non è altro che il risultato di un dato modo di guardarsi in uno specchio.

Which touched the point of wisdom as well as if he had got drunk and sober a hundred times

From Herodotus’ Histories (1.133), a supposed custom of the Persians:

Moreover it is their custom to deliberate about the gravest matters when they are drunk; and what they approve in their counsels is proposed to them the next day by the master of the house where they deliberate, when they are now sober and if being sober they still approve it, they act thereon, but if not, they cast it aside. And when they have taken counsel about a matter when sober, they decide upon it when they are drunk.

μεθυσκόμενοι δὲ ἐώθασι βουλεύεσθαι τὰ σπουδαιέστατα τῶν πρηγμάτων· τὸ δ᾿ ἂν ἅδῃ σφι βουλευομένοισι, τοῦτο τῇ ὑστεραίῃ νήφουσι προτιθεῖ ὁ στέγαρχος, ἐν τοῦ ἂν ἐόντες βουλεύωνται, καὶ ἢν μὲν ἅδῃ καὶ νήφουσι, χρέωνται αὐτῷ, ἢν δὲ μὴ ἅδῃ, μετιεῖσι. τὰ δ᾿ ἂν νήφοντες προβουλεύσωνται, μεθυσκόμενοι ἐπιδιαγινώσκουσι.

Tacitus reports a similar custom in the Germania (22):

after washing they take a meal, seated apart, each at his own table: then, arms in hand, they proceed to business, or, just as often, to revelry. To make day and night run into one in drinking is a reproach to no man: brawls are frequent, naturally, among heavy drinkers: they are seldom settled with abuse, more often with wounds and bloodshed; nevertheless the mutual reconciliation of enemies, the forming of family alliances, the appointment of chiefs, the question even of war or peace, are usually debated at these banquets; as though at no other time were the mind more open to obvious, or better warmed to larger, thoughts. The people are without craft or cunning, and expose in the freedom of the occasion the heart’s previous secrets; so every mind is bared to nakedness: on the next day the matter is handled afresh; so the principle of each debating season is justified: deliberation comes when they are incapable of pretence, but decision when they are secure from illusion.

lauti cibum capiunt: separatae singulis sedes et sua cuique mensa, tum ad negotia nec minus saepe ad convivia procedunt armati. diem noctemque continuare potando nulli probrum. crebrae, ut inter vinolentos, rixae raro conviciis, saepius caede et vulneribus transiguntur. sed et de reconciliandis invicem inimicis et iungendis adfinitatibus et adsciscendis principibus, de pace denique ac bello plerumque in conviviis consultant, tamquam nullo magis tempore aut ad simplices cogitationes pateat animus aut ad magnas incalescat. gens non astuta nec callida aperit adhuc secreta pectoris licentia loci; ergo detecta et nuda omnium mens. postera die retractatur1 et salva utriusque temporis ratio est: deliberant, dum fingere nesciunt, constituunt, dum errare non possunt.

And finally Laurence Sterne adds the Shandean variant, further enriched with a Lit de justice pun:

THE ancient Goths of Germany, who (the learned Cluverius is positive) were first seated in the country between the Vistula and the Oder, and who afterwards incorporated the Herculi, the Bugians, and some other Vandallick clans to ’em—had all of them a wise custom of debating every thing of importance to their state, twice, that is,—once drunk, and once sober:——Drunk—that their councils might not want vigour;——and sober—that they might not want discretion.

Now my father being entirely a water-drinker,—was a long time gravelled almost to death, in turning this as much to his advantage, as he did every other thing which the ancients did or said; and it was not till the seventh year of his marriage, after a thousand fruitless experiments and devices, that he hit upon an expedient which answered the purpose;——and that was, when any difficult and momentous point was to be settled in the family, which required great sobriety, and great spirit too, in its determination,——he fixed and set apart the first Sunday night in the month, and the Saturday night which immediately preceded it, to argue it over, in bed with my mother: By which contrivance, if you consider, Sir, with yourself, * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

These my father, humorously enough, called his beds of justice;——for from the two different counsels taken in these two different humours, a middle one was generally found out which touched the point of wisdom as well, as if he had got drunk and sober a hundred times.

What the reader is to consider is one of the earliest jokes of the novel (chap 4 of volume 1):

——————Shut the door.——————
I was begot in the night betwixt the first Sunday and the first Monday in the month of March, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighteen. I am positive I was.—But how I came to be so very particular in my account of a thing which happened before I was born, is owing to another small anecdote known only in our own family, but now made publick for the better clearing up this point.

My father, you must know, who was originally a Turkey merchant, but had left off business for some years, in order to retire to, and die upon, his paternal estate in the county of ——, was, I believe, one of the most regular men in every thing he did, whether ’twas matter of business, or matter of amusement, that ever lived. As a small specimen of this extreme exactness of his, to which he was in truth a slave, he had made it a rule for many years of his life,—on the first Sunday-night of every month throughout the whole year,—as certain as ever the Sunday-night came,—to wind up a large house-clock, which we had standing on the back-stairs head, with his own hands:—And being somewhere between fifty and sixty years of age at the time I have been speaking of,—he had likewise gradually brought some other little family concernments to the same period, in order, as he would often say to my uncle Toby, to get them all out of the way at one time, and be no more plagued and pestered with them the rest of the month.