Get Thee To a Nunnery

On the descent into madness

The contest for the greatest play in the English language comes down to one of two Shakespeare plays: Hamlet and Macbeth. Both of these plays delve deeply into the psyche of ordinary men and women who enter the realm of madness. The plays themselves and the characters therein resonate deeply, crossing boundaries temporal and cultural. In our contemporary culture, the descent into madness is the theme of two of the most popular record albums ever recorded, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall. The former used to rival Michael Jackson’s Thriller for worldwide sales, and is still the second most selling record of all time. I’m sure that as soon as either David Gilmore or Roger Waters dies (Rick Wright, RIP) many new fans will restore the rivalry at the top of the all-time charts

Shakespeare draws a picture for us: Hamlet, young Hamlet, possessed by the ghost of his father to avenge his death, has been veritably banished by his uncle to England, whereupon he will be murdered, as everybody knows. By some twist of fate and the adventuring spirit of young Hamlet, he escapes, making his way back to Elsinore. Upon his arrival at the outskirts, he stumbles across an open grave. Holding up the skull of Yorick, his father’s jester, and a favorite person from his childhood, he says, “I knew him.”

Linear perspective insists that all parallel lines converge upon the horizon. Well, here at the open grave, the horizon been brought dramatically forward, and Hamlet experiences the confrontation which is a response to his melodramatic soliloquy: what dreams may come after we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause.

Hamlet 1948 réal : Laurence Olivier Laurence Olivier  Collection Christophel
Hamlet 1948: Laurence Olivier

Not for long, for the grave is not passive; it is active, yawning, galloping, devouring. In a brilliant interpretation of the subtlest kind, Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, when he hears the approaching funeral procession, tosses the skull of Yorick back into the grave, just in time for old Yorick to receive the recently deceased and politically important Ophelia.

All the powers of the earth are here converging, with love, politics, royalty, vengeance, and that always-pressing anxiety intersecting over a grave. War is ever on the horizon, hemming everyone within easy reach of the same.

And you run and you run to catch up with the sun

But it’s sinking

Racing around to come up behind you again

Banquo’s ghost won’t rest, either, charging up from the grave to confront, wordlessly, the ambitious Macbeth.

Here’s a curious aside: Richard Burton, an actor of some note, refused to play Macbeth because, as he says, he cannot be dominated by a woman in that way. The irony is captivating once you come to the understanding that he drove himself to drink over his treacherous divorce in order to win for himself the great prize, Elizabeth Taylor, who dominated him.

The descent into madness, and its appeal to popular and literary culture, is not limited to obsessive thoughts concerning the grave. “This is the end. There is an end to me. Life has no purpose, no meaning.” No, that’s maudlin stuff. Pap. Child’s play. The descent into madness is the lonely individual coping with the active, ongoing confrontation of the grave, that all our evil deeds and the evil deeds of many others manage to wriggle free from death’s strong bonds in an effort to possess us ahead of time.

Ordinary people have a fascination with the exploration of the descent of ordinary people into madness. A playwright or musician will set the scene in extraordinary circumstances, by my reckoning, to sell tickets on the entertainment value. The literary value, i.e., its meaningfulness to the paying ordinary public, is its deep-seated commonality, the themes which grasp a deep-seated anxiety, an anxiety which many people would declare possesses us all. Some of us, for various reasons, cope better with that anxiety than others.

The meaning of life, in other words, is a question of how to maintain meaningful behavior even while under possession of the grave.

Richard Burton’s Hamlet gestures toward Ophelia’s womb, saying, “Get thee to a nunnery.”

subhumans-from_the_cradle_to_the_grave

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On Drinking Single Malt Scotch

College is a wonderful place to learn the medicinal value of fermented beverages and distilled spirits. To avoid debt, I took on a few jobs at a time, weaving them as the warp to my class schedule’s woof. One of those jobs involved some physical labor which would have made OSHA disintegrate in the heat of its own outrage, but the abuse was overlooked because we were teen-aged students needing the dollars; moreover, we enjoyed the adventure. One aspect of that job had us navigating the underground tunnels looking for leaks in the steam system. Pressurized steam is invisible, but a steam leak is usually audible. The thrill of the terror of possibly not hearing the leak was invigorating.

I went to a small religious school in Chicago, which is, I might suggest, a beer drinking town. I suppose that doesn’t make it terribly unique, but beer it was for our aching muscles and joints–also for the realization of the possibility of actual bodily harm, which youth, in its wisdom, suppresses until after the battle. The good people at the Miller Brewing Company had just introduced a fine concoction which they named “Miller Genuine Draft.” Pitchers of this golden elixir were available at an affordable price at a Madison Avenue bar which was not particular about enforcing the draconian and prohibitory drinking age laws, so we expressed our love for MGD, as it was known, by purchasing gallons of it at a time. On my twenty-first birthday, we celebrated by buying a pitcher of the more expensive Miller Brewing Company product, Leinenkugel’s Red.

Performance anxiety requires something a little stronger. My boss was a nice, rather muscular lady who enjoyed wearing coveralls and screaming unprintable epithets at us young men to ensure we were earning our pennies. At any rate, she was of Polish descent, and we were living in one of the Polish strongholds of Chicago, so I was introduced to cheap vodka, which was readily available, and I learned, through it, how to scream those same epithets with efficient effectiveness to mitigate anxiety. Continue reading “On Drinking Single Malt Scotch”

Battling Anxiety Through Free Range Parenting

A further response to Samantha, who does not like the term free-range parenting, as she says, “Free range just means kids are allowed to be kids.”

This resonates. I have several distinct memories as a kindergartener. Two of them are: 1) I wept uncontrollably when Mommy left me with the stranger in the building with the cold floors and the big windows to let you see outside. 2) Later in the year, I struggled with the math, undecided whether I should count kindergarten as one year toward the completion of 12th Grade. I could not cope with the idea that THIRTEEN YEARS OF THIS PRISON HELL?!?

Institutionalized school is a place, first and foremost, to develop the several kinds of social anxiety. My favorite was performance anxiety, namely that I had to make good grades or I could not possibly succeed in life. On the face of it, this is an entirely contentious statement, but I don’t care: I hated school from day one; during the school year I hated every day of my life, knowing that if I misbehaved, Teacher was going to pin a note to my shirt, sending me home to tell Mommy that she needed yet another conference in order to strategize behavior modification. I wasn’t doing a damn thing wrong: I just wouldn’t sit still. Nevertheless, the first thing I learned in school, about school, at age five, which has never been unlearned, is that the institution is always watching me. From those moments forward, life has been about coping with this intrusion into my personal emotional space.

Roger Waters captured this intrusion perfectly in his little ditty, having the children sing so sweetly, “We don’t need no education.” That record has been played about a billion times over the past thirty years, and not just because it has a good rhythm and a beat you can dance to. The song embodies musically a visceral response to all kinds of anxiety, even the same anxiety you feel when the IRS or CRA demands to know your every wage, tip, and other compensation.

Another_Brick_in_the_Wall

This anxiety is the primary reason my wife and I practice a free-range parenting, as it were. It’s not that there is no anxiety out there, no magical escape from anxiety, no anxiety-free monastery (as one of my friends has remarked about certain quarters of the home schooling world: “the denim jumper brigade”), but that learning the ciphers necessary for groping through this mortal coil can be done in a lower-anxiety environment.

The home, in other words, can be relatively free from institutional intrusion into the emotional world of a child.

Readers who have successfully emerged from the gauntlet of institutional education can attest that success in “real life” (whatever that is) didn’t require so much behavior modification, such competition to achieve, such confrontation with the institution. Again, I’m advocating a via media here: behavior modification is necessary, competing to achieve must be instilled, the confrontation with the institution is inevitable. Too much of these things threatens to create a person who struggles to experience pleasure in the challenges of everyday, ordinary experiences, whether they are climbing their way to the top, or are satisfied in a low-ceiling career, or find their way to the end somewhere in the middle.

Therefore, I submit to Samantha another term: low-anxiety parenting. Failure is always an option, and failure is probably good for you. Every once in a while.


This post is the second post following up “Let’s Go Do Something Dangerous,” a companion to “The Structure of Free-Range Parenting.”