Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Dalrymple on Shakespeare and Solzhenitsyn

Why Shakespeare is for all time. An excerpt:

Take as a test case Macbeth, the shortest of his tragedies. The play is a study of ambition, the evil to which ambition leads when unrestrained by ethical inhibition, and the logic of evil once an evil course has been embarked upon. The ambition and the evil are part of man’s nature. All that is necessary to understand the play, therefore, is to be human: and if we attend to it closely, we shall have a deeper appreciation of its subject matter than if we read all the philosophy, sociology, criminology, and biology of the past two centuries. Statistics will not lead us to enlightenment about ourselves, any more than the elucidation of the human genome will render Shakespeare redundant. Those who think that an understanding of the double helix is the same as an understanding of ourselves are not only prey to an illusion but are stunting themselves as human beings, condemning themselves not to an advance in self-understanding but to a positive retrogression.

That there is why I read Dalrymple. Here is the true and universal genius of Shakespeare:

By depriving Macbeth of any particular predilection for evil that is not common to all men, and by denying him every possible circumstance that might justify or occasion his actions, Shakespeare excavates down to the line between good and evil that runs through every human heart, to use a phrase from The Gulag Archipelago that contradicts Solzhenitsyn’s faintly dismissive estimate of Shakepeare’s evil characters. He writes: “Gradually it was disclosed to me [in the Gulag] that the line separating good from evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts.” And it is Shakespeare who shows us this line.

But he does more. He shows us not only how easily that line is crossed, even by someone without an excuse or a special propensity to do so, but what the consequences are of crossing it. And in showing us that the line is always there, easily and disastrously crossed, Shakespeare destroys the utopian illusion that social arrangements can be made so perfect that men will no longer have to strive to be good. Original sin—that is to say, the sin of having been born with human nature that contains within it the temptation to evil—will always make a mockery of attempts at perfection based upon manipulation of the environment. The prevention of evil will always require more than desirable social arrangements: it will forever require personal self-control and the conscious limitation of appetites.

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