Shakespeare’s Astonishing Vision

Clairvoyance; Seeing Through

“Clairvoyance” actually means clear vision, although the word has taken on an extra-sensory connotation. Newton “saw further” by standing on the shoulders of giants (as we all must), but he nevertheless did the seeing himself. This is actually very difficult for us humans, because of the fog of superstition and preconception. Often wisdom consists in simply seeing clearly, and saying what one has seen.

Here Colin McGinn wondrously captures the essence of the Master of Masters’ philosophy in a single page. I once again repeat Harold Bloom’s stunned question: How was he even possible, 400 years ago? It’s literally unimaginable to me. No Newton yet, or Galileo; only Copernicus, Montaigne, and the Greeks breaking trail before him.

From Shakespeare’s Philosophy by Colin McGinn p. 15  [I’ve imposed some paragraph breaks.]

[Also see Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World, and
……………Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human]

According to an orthodox philosophy, we are rational beings capable of knowledge of the world, not significantly prone to error; we also enjoy a constant identity over time, a unitary self that persists in its given nature over the course of our existence; and we live in a fundamentally rational universe in which justice is done and events make sense. Shakespeare rejects that comforting picture entirely, and his plays are patterned by this rejection.

With church authority crumbling and science not yet established, Shakespeare held a view of man and the universe that has no established name but that is approximated by such labels as “pessimism,” “nihilism,” skepticism.” Part of my aim in this book is to work out exactly what his view was, insofar as it is represented in the plays. If I were to award him a single label, it would be “naturalist,” in somewhat the sense that one speaks of a student of natural history: he is a clear-eyed observer and recorder, sensitive to the facts before his eyes, not swayed by dogma or tradition (and naturalists have often returned from their observations with a pessimistic streak).

He is simply saying This is the way things are, like it or not. He is a detached, supremely sane student of human beings and their world, intent on descriptive accuracy. There is not a sentimental bone in his body. He has the curiosity of a scientist, the judgment of a philosopher, and the soul of a poet. He gives one the sense that he is ruthlessly peeling back the layers of self-delusion and wishful thinking that cloud our view of human affairs, exposing the bloody beating heart (and intestines) of man. He is a beady-eyed naturalist of raging human interiority and social collision. And his naturalism counsels a proper skepticism about human pretensions to knowledge, distrust of the notion of the substantial self, and rejection of the teleological interpretation of causation.

Keats famously spoke of a particular quality “which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reach after fact and reason. This expresses what I am calling Shakespeare’s naturalism quite well: the naturalistic observer puts himself to one side, accepting whatever mysteries and doubts the world offers to his faculties of investigation. He has no desire to explain things away, to paper over difficulties, to oversimplify, to settle for easy answers, to fit everything into some overarching theoretical framework.

Montaigne too had this quality in his examination of himself – unsparing, exact and fearless. You feel he is giving you reality, not doctrines; life, not literature. In both Montaigne’s and Shakespeare’s work, there is a kind of appalling, but exhilarating, candor. And some of that ruthlessness is philosophical: the determination to expose reality for what it is, to undermine dogma and complacency. In the end, of course, this is nothing other than a dedication to the truth.

[This ends McGinn’s summary.]

I share this world view; but the society in which I live mostly does not. Not yet! (“Makes a man… a little lonely.”) As with all my other essential attributes, I’m convinced from long introspection that I “came with” deep skepticism and high-order clairvoyance. (I would like to call Big Bill, myself, and others like us objectivists, rather than naturalists, but Ayn Rand has irrevocably sullied that moniker.) Below, I will name things that I see clearly. Others will disagree. Arguing, though, would be futile.

Many good things can be said about the Bible, but it is absurd to believe it presents a reliable ethical template. I set out to read it to restore my faith, and instead the reading quickly finished it off. The best way to keep faith in it is not to read it. (Reminds me of Mrs. Gathman, mother to my Fundamentalist roommate’s girlfriend when I was young, who condemned me for reading The Grapes of Wrath. “Have you read it, then?” “Heavens NO!”) Anyhow, you’d think, the Bible being the word of God and all, more people would read the damn thing.

In Genesis, Lot (“the last just man in Sodom”!) tries to pimp out his virgin daughters to a frenzied horde of Sodomites who want to have sex with the pretty angel lads in his house! (Instead the girls have sex with Dad.) And what is this God gobbling Jesus recommends? (“This is my body. Take; eat.”) Atavistic cannibalism. Please. Read Grapes instead.

In my church there actually were a few who read the Bible cover to cover, repeatedly, without effect. They seemed among the sanctified. It took a while for me to understand this: If you can be persuaded or cowed into being absolutely certain that the book is inerrant, the rest is a snap. When you encounter God having an infantile tantrum, or prescribing genocide or unimaginable misogyny, you start with knowing the book is perfect; so you consult an expert rationalizer (“distortionist”) to help you “understand.” (All orthodoxies have these rationalizers.) You buy what they say. But your hope to ever learn critical thinking takes another mortal hit. (I tried being a rationalizer myself when I was a budding boy preacher, but shortly had a talk with myself: “Jimmy, you talkin’ out your ass.” “Oh yeah, huh.”)

 The protestant Fundamentalists have ruined the word “Christian” by conflating it with their particular flavor of the fanatical superstition; and the same bunch, the Saved, have made the Bible simply a talisman, carried to signal that they are within the exclusive circle of the elect. Moroccan leather, velum pages edged with gold leaf – $19.95 (imported). In like Flynn. (Oops.)

The play that took me permanently out of the game was the preacher’s morning prayer, in which he beseeched the Lord God to keep JFK from the presidency because the Pope would seize control. I thought, “this is asinine. How can he get away with it?” But he did.

I stuck around at the periphery for a while because I loved the singing. Baptists can really belt out the rousers. But here’s Mignon McLaughlin: “Sacred music could make believers of us all! – but preachers can be counted on to restore the balance.” Our preacher – the deacons went to see him once to get him to stop his preaching at noon instead of 12:45.   He said you couldn’t put a muzzle on the Word of God. He had ‘em. Off they skittered. For them and all the rest I wrote the Sheep Song: “Sing the song. Bang the gong. And go along to get along.” And I skittered on outta there myself.
I don’t now think of myself as an atheist, because the word implies opposition to some concept of “supreme being.” This is OK, but it seems to me that the only standard definition westerners might agree on for this being is the one in the Old Testament, and that guy’s too ludicrously primitive even to “not believe in.” Besides, we don’t need a word for everything we don’t believe in – like, for example, the fairies at the bottom of the garden! (Although I might believe in them a little bit!) And the word “agnostic” – a failure of follow-through – an insipid word that represents a way-station for the wishy-washy on the road to freedom!

I’ll just hew to Ben Franklin’s pithy suggestion to imitate Jesus and Socrates, and move on.

Another truth is that Freethinkers are now, and always have been, among the brights of the world; yet in this country they can’t be elected to anything because of the prejudice against us. We are thought to be as wicked as child molesters. (Susan Jacoby has written a vital book, Freethinkers, which recapitulates their contributions to our world. Compare the woeful, willful ignorance of Santorum and Gingrich – and their vast constituency – and weep.) The reason, incidentally, that tea-party Republicans will have no truck with science is that they can no longer find any shelter at all for their antediluvian theories.


Temple Grandin likes cows more than people. (For me it’s cats and parrots.) She’s an autistic savant with a gift for seeing things the way a cow sees them. Since she realizes she can’t stop their slaughter, she does her best to make their lives in the feedlots tolerable. People in the business want the cows to stay happy too, so they won’t lose weight and do destructive things; so when their cattle seem to be getting regularly spooked, Ms. Grandin gets the call, Gord blesser.

She has the same reaction as those with clairvoyance in other fields; she comes into the feedlot and immediately spots the trouble. Then she thinks, “how could they be so stupid?” I was equally puzzled by many of my corporation’s personnel actions. There were others who could also see the inevitable disasters that would result – but the perps could not. And Einstein had this trouble explaining his theories to the uninitiated.

People who are clairvoyant in any field have this problem repeatedly: since we see clearly, we assume that what we see is visible to everyone, and are puzzled when that’s not the case (the Dunning-Kruger effect). But it, like every human attribute, is distributed along a bell curve. (I see people’s motives. I’m chary about telling them, though, because they don’t like it. It’s like seeing that the emperor’s new clothes are invisible; if you tell him you noticed, he will not like it!)


Another thing that McGinn rightly makes a big deal about is Shakespeare’s objectivity, and its necessary corollary of keeping all ideologies at bay. I was lucky to realize early how the Baptists’ ideology had wrought havoc on their ability to think, and engendered in them a capacity for both deception and self-deceit. I was so repulsed by the mechanics of this when I understood them that I’ve never since been tempted. It makes me think of Toto knocking down the Wizard of Oz’s screen.

I’ve always thought of scientists as being paragons of objectivity; but there are too many stories of the old men in the business trying to smother the young pioneers. There’s a huge irony in this story about Max Planck, which I will retell: it was he who created a well-known aphorism, that science progresses one funeral at a time. Funny story. So far so good.

But when Werner Heisenberg came along with his Uncertainty Principle, messing with Planck’s own baby – quantum mechanics – both he and Uncle Albert were mortally pissed. What irked them the worst was the irreconcilable uncertainty of it! The Holy Grail they sought was the Theory of Everything. If they could find the Big TOE, uncertainty would be vanquished. Heisenberg pretty much proved to everyone else’s satisfaction that they had best forget about the TOE, fond as they were of it. But they wouldn’t let it go; so they got stuck in their own little eddy, and the swift river of physics flowed on without them.

How painful: Planck had himself become one whose funeral was anticipated so he’d get out of the way! I think he must at some point have realized this; and I’ll bet I know what he told himself – the same cry we hear over and over and over from stock market gurus at the height of every bubble since markets were invented: “THIS TIME IS DIFFERENT!”


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