The Book!

Friday, November 24, 2017

Marx and the Marks



A Nazi image of the traditional "greedy capitalist."

Why is cultural Marxism a thing? Objectively, it seems mad. Marx was effectively disproved by 1917, the time of the Bolshevik Revolution. It was supposed, after all, to be an uprising by an impoverished and oppressed proletariat. Instead, it was the intellectuals, and it still is. In a country that had almost no proletariat; and this is now generally true in the West. Nothing since 1917 has done anything to restore anyone else's faith in Marx's notions. Yet the intellectuals generally, especially in the Humanities and Social Sciences at just about every university across the developed world, still all enforce this crackpot theory as a sort of orthodox dogma.

There are several reasons. One is that you actually need an ideology in education; without a goal, you cannot meaningfully do anything. When they cast out theology as the queen of the sciences, in favour of “scientific” materialism, the non-science subjects needed some new ideology that justified them in scientific terms. Marxism and Freudianism, pseudo-sciences working with the same subject matter, seemed to fit the bill.

But there is another reason.

Any profession is a cartel in restraint of trade; and Adam Smith's wisdom holds here. Whenever two or more men engaged in the same trade meet and talk, for any reason, even purely socially, the conversation will inevitably turn to how to improve their own position at the expense of the general public.

In creating and assigning special rights to professions, we are enabling and encouraging this. Our only protection against it is the naive confidence that people in the professions are moral paragons, who will naturally put the general interest above their own.

Every profession has a vested interest in failing to do what they are supposed to be there to do. Try the thought experiment: suppose some psychiatrist found a simple, inexpensive way to cure all mental illness. It might be in his own interest to publicize it; if he were an independent entrepreneur; but it certainly would not be in the interests of the profession. They would all swiftly be out of work: out of a job and a career they have invested hugely in, and that gives them immense rewards and prestige. How confident can we be that given the chance, this or any profession would wheel into action to destroy itself?

Dentistry stands apart as one profession that genuinely seems to act to reduce the problems dentists face. But this, I think, is due to the peculiar circumstances of that profession. Most dentists hate their job. The problem is that everyone hates to go to the dentist. This has to wear you down after a while. The suicide rate among dentists is high. So they are driven to justify themselves; and not that upset at perhaps being required to switch profession.

But look at lawyers. It is in that trade's vested interests to have more and more laws, and to make them harder and harder to understand. Then there is more and more need to hire lawyers. And so we have lawyers gravitating to government, where they pass more and more laws. And so we have the problem of legalese, odd lawyerly language designed so that non-lawyers cannot read it.

Look at government bureaucrats. It is in their vested interests, similarly, to have more and more regulations, and make them more difficult to understand. And so we have reams more, year by year, proposed and implemented by bureaucrats.

It is in the vested interest of academics to make their fields sound more difficult than they are. Just read and try to make sense out of the standard academic paper.

It is in the vested interest of teachers not to teach efficiently. I have dealt with this in detail elsewhere. Since we have allowed teachers to organize as a self-regulating profession, the cost of schools has shot up, while student results on standardized tests have flatlined or declined.

Since we have allowed journalists to organize as a profession, the quality of the media has declined in most folk's estimation—as demonstrated by falling readerships and viewerships.

Professionalizing a field is a lousy idea, and ought to be avoided whenever possible.

It is all predictable. In fact, it is all there in the New Testament. The professions are the people Jesus called “scribes and Pharisees”; scribe and Pharisee were the two learned professions of his day. They are the villains of the piece.

Already then, before, and ever since, the learned professions, scribes, priests, physicians, lawyers, clerks, and so on, have held all real power in society. The nominal rulers, kings and nobles and Roman procurators, got to live in great comfort and to go about hunting or doing whatever they like, but they were not the ones directly exercising power over others. Those were their estate agents, their clerks, their chancellors, their rent collectors and bailiffs, their tax collectors, their gamekeepers. The professionals. Such positions naturally attract the power-hungry: the bullies and the abusers.

It is no different in a democracy. The nominal rulers, the general public, vote once every four years, to appoint the highest ranks of the managers. But the bureaucrats and the professions are the ones exercising all real power over others daily.

The true value of Marxism to this class is that it distracts attention from the actual state of affairs. It sets up a cartoon villain, “the greedy capitalists,” or “the corporations,” and assigns to them all the supposed power and all the blame for anything wrong. “The Jews” works too, or used to, until Hitler overplayed his hand. “Americans” still works in most parts of the world. And “straight white men.” All these groups are conveniently identified by Marxists with the imaginary “greedy capitalists.”

By pointing fingers elsewhere, we are encouraged to overlook the power held by the professions, or how it might be abused. They can represent themselves as the great defenders of the poor and ordinary folks against their oppressors. And demand more power for this imaginary fight. Great con job, and it has worked for millennia.

It has always worked better in Europe than in America, of course. Better in Europe, because Europeans have a longer and deeper tradition of always deferring to their “betters.” The American working class is not so prepared to let others think or speak for them. Bunch of rednecks!

Fortunately, with the growth of the Internet, the power of the professions is probably declining. Much of what they once held as a private preserve—knowledge--is now readily available. Better access to media is shining light into dark corners. The recent taping of an inquisition at Wilfrid Laurier University is a case of this. We are starting to see the little men pulling the levers behind the curtain, and are not inclined to be awed.

We are also beginning to see what looks like a crackup. We witness the professions—broadly, “the left”--become extreme and violent, as they no longer seem to be able to get and do what they want. It begins to look hysterical; or like a tantrum. Let's all scream at the sky, shall we? Antifa, for example, seems to be composed of professionals on their days off wearing masks. They are making it all too clear now that they are not in any kind of solidarity with the rest of us.


Thursday, November 23, 2017

Happy American Thanksgiving, Racists!




Just in time for American Thanksgiving, a host of leftist websites in the US are priming their audience to disrupt the family meal with political talking points.

This is an obvious violation of good manners, and destructive to families. How could anyone justify it?

Lifehacker does by arguing we have a moral duty to respond if someone else says something “racist.” I agree. If some other family member brings up politics, you have a right and quite possibly a duty to respond. They have committed the aggression, on the family and on all present. You must defend.

But, to begin with, the comments Lifehacker calls “racist” clearly are not. They cite complaints about voter fraud, “welfare queens,” and “faux outrage about blue lives mattering.” Splinter adds the need to deal with those objectionable “Trump isn't racist” comments. None of these things have anything to do with race, let alone racism. If the listener on the left insists they do, he is the racist, not the person he is speaking to: he is insisting that only blacks abuse welfare, only non-whites vote illegally, and all policemen are white. And that saying someone is not racist is racist.

Moreover, given these examples, who is more likely to be initiating the political conversation? The phrase “blue lives matter” is a response to the phrase “black lives matter.” Who is going to say it except in response to the first? Who is going to suddenly burst out with “Trump isn't racist” in the absence of the prior assertion that he is?

Splinter advises that the organization SURJ ("Showing Up For Racial Justice") "also created an anti-racist placemat you can print and set under your plate if you want to avoid grabbing your cell phone. The placemat focuses on indigenous solidarity and challenging familiar narratives about Thanksgiving.”

So—isn't putting such placemats under everyone's meal initiating the argument? Isn't pulling out the placemat you have been given, and replacing it with this, also ostentatiously starting the argument? And, without it, are racist comments against American Indians likely to come up? After all, the “familiar narrative” of the “First Thanksgiving,” smarmy as it may be, is all about how the local Indians helped the first settlers, and they shared their Thanksgiving meal in peace and harmony. This is racist? This is hostile to American Indians?

It is getting hard to believe the modern left have any agenda other than destroying any traces of civilization they can reach: destroying the Thanksgiving celebration, destroying the extended family. I do not mean American culture, or American civilization. I mean civilization. I think they hate all civilization equally, and it would not matter if it were Chinese.

The Cultural Revolution proceeds apace.



Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Let 'Er RIP




Epitaph 4

I just knew something like this was bound to happen sooner or later.


Epitaph 5

Wake me when it’s over.


Epitaph 6


Where’s my handcart?


Epitaph 7


Forgotten, but not gone.


Epitaph 8

If all the world’s a stage
Where’s my damned ovation?

Do I get an encore?

Epitaph 9: 
The cartoon over,
I await the feature presentation. 
--Stephen K. Roney

Lindsay Shepherd and Free Speech at WLU




The assaults on free speech at Canadian campuses are becoming more alarming. Following on Ryerson University actually prohibiting a panel discussion on free speech, we have the bullying and threatening of poor 22-year-old grad assistant Lindsay Shepherd for showing a clip from TVO in class—something freely available to the general public on TV.

This is the perfect subversion of the intention of a university: the free exchange of ideas. Now any free exchange of ideas must be done outside class, in secret. The professors involved should be fired. If they are not, the university should be cut off from any public funding and any degree-granting powers.

The sad excuse used, here and elsewhere, for such attacks on free speech and free thought, is that some speech or some idea may hurt someone's feelings. And this is an act of violence against them. Like Hitler, as the profs in this case actually say.

This claim ought never to be entertained, even though it has now become an accepted commonplace. Any possible opinion or point of view is going to make someone feel uncomfortable. If I say it is sunny out today, it will offend someone whose family makes a living selling umbrellas. To prohibit any speech at all on these grounds is always to give some favoured group special privileges. And any assignment of special privileges to one group is always a withdrawal of rights from all others.

It is essential, too, to all that is good and holy, to preserve a distinction between physical assault and reasoned debate. It is not just that words are not deeds—as our grandmothers used to say, “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” It is also that defeating an opponent with superior reasoning and evidence is a very different thing from defeating him by beating him into bloodied submission with a baseball bat or a prison term. Erase that difference, and all hell breaks loose. The only options then are anarchy, a war to the death of all against all, or totalitarianism, with government purely in the personal interests of whatever individual happens to hold power.

The modern academy is now actually actively engaged in erasing that difference. The assault on Lindsay Shepherd is a definite example of beating a reasoned opinion you do not like into submission. Not, to be clear, Shepherd's opinion; that of Jordan Peterson,which she simply reported.

At this point, the safest thing for us all would be to abolish the universities. Happily, a benevolent providence seems to be at work on this as we speak. I have recently seen the prediction that, within ten years, half of US colleges will be bankrupt. Aside from such egregious abuses of power and position as we see here, the old job of the university can now be done more efficiently and cheaply online. The community of scholars is now equally present everywhere, on the web.

And on the web, happily, it is virtually impossible to suppress opinions you do not like. Making it a much better vehicle for the advancement of human knowledge.

Examples like the present one at WLU just ensure there will be less mourning for the old professoriate when they go.


Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Lynch Mobs



Laura Nelson, lynched 1911.

Xerxes my leftist columnist friend has raised the dire spectre of right wing lynch mobs in the street. He suggests they are to be expected due to the rise of the right wing and “white supremacy.”

But lynch mobs are not a “right-wing” phenomenon. Historically, they are more often found on the left. The term itself seems to have been invented by the American left during and after the US War of Independence to suggest the proper treatment of Tory Loyalists—the political wing of their day. The same term and techniques were then used against blacks (and Catholics, and immigrants, and Republicans) in the US South by the KKK—which was, in its day, when it was a real force (1860 to 1870, then 1915 to 1925), a leftist organization, or at least ambiguously either left or right. They were one of the pillars of Woodrow Wilson's “Progressive” administration.

Will Brown being tortured and killed in Omaha, Nebraska, during "Red Summer," 1919.

The French Revolution was a golden era of lynch mobs—virtually always on the left. The same is true of the Spanish Civil War. The Cultural Revolution in China was probably the great global heyday for lynchings and mob rule. 

It makes sense: the right is generally for “law and order.” The left is generally for “taking it to the streets.” Lynch mobs are almost necessarily on the left. A right-wing lynch mob is almost a contradiction in terms.

There have certainly been, of late, no lynchings in the name of “white supremacy.” But then, there do not seem to have been any white supremacists.

The number of actual “white supremacists” In the US is probably vanishingly small. Even the notorious Robert Spencer, who is always trotted out as prime example, with his perhaps several hundred followers, is not really a white supremacist, and would never use the term for himself. Instead, the term “white supremacist” seems to have been invented by parties on the left in order to justify lynch mobs and vigilante justice against anyone to whom they assign this label.

So far, any recent vigilante “justice” of a literal sort has almost all been coming from the organizations “Antifa” and “Black Lives Matter,” who are on the left. Of a less literal sort, the threat has also been coming, and increasingly, from the left. Extrajudicial proceedings and punishments without due process from the various “Title IX” enforcement structures in US colleges; from the Human Rights panels in Canada. Granted, these are not mob rule; these are things set up by an elite holding power. It is not quite the same problem as a lynch mob. More like a Star Chamber.


Monday, November 20, 2017

Epitaphs





Epitaph 1
Closed for renovations

Epitaph 2
I once went to take of my mask
And I came off with it.


Epitaph 3
Only bones beneath these stones;
Mind the butterflies.

-- Stephen K. Roney

The Edmonton E*****s






Controversy is warming up over the Edmonton Eskimos name. It is supposedly offensive or insulting to indigenous people. It is currently held offensive simply to give a sports team an aboriginal name, despite the fact that we see no problem with other ethnic groups: Boston Celtics, Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Minnesota Vikings, Queen's Golden Gaels, and so forth. McGill managed a pass on their “Redmen” by claiming the reference was to Scots instead of Canadian Indians.

On top of that, “Eskimo” is commonly supposed to be pejorative. People generally think it means “cannibal.” This, however, is an old etymological error. It actually means something like “people who wear snowshoes.” Not offensive, and a good deal less troubling than the now-preferred “Inuit.” “Inuit” actually means “human being”--with the necessary implication that anyone who is not Inuit is not, in fact, human.

So the controversy is foolish.

On the other hand, I have never liked the name “Edmonton Eskimos.” I would not be sad to see it go. The problem is that Edmonton has nothing to do with Eskimos; or no more than any other Canadian city. I always had the same problem with Edmonton's “Klondike Days” festival. Edmonton is very far from where Eskimos live, and it is very far from the Klondike. This in itself is not a problem—Toronto is pretty far from where the Argonauts sailed—but Edmonton is just close enough to either to make it look like an attempt to mislead, and to steal somebody else's thunder. Is their really nothing about Edmonton itself worth celebrating? Does the city have no personality of its own?

To make the matter more difficult, it would be desirable to keep the team initials “EE.” Otherwise, a lot of added expense redesigning logos, helmets, stationery.

Edmonton Eskers?
Edmonton Elk?
Edmonton Electrons?
Edmonton Earthquake?
Edmonton Epic?
Edmonton Eco-terrorists?
Edmonton Ecdysiasts?




Sunday, November 19, 2017

Yet More on Moore


A lot of folks have recently weighed in on the Roy Moore case. I think an update is in order. I had most recently said that a new accusation by a fourth woman, Beverly Nelson, of an attempted rape in a car, probably tipped the preponderance of evidence towards guilt, so that Moore should withdraw as a candidate. Now I think I need to walk that back. I think serious doubts have been raised over that new accusation.

The one point that most strikes me—and this did not occur to me personally until someone else pointed it out—is that the accuser's prime bit of offered evidence is an inscription in her high school yearbook wishing her a Merry Christmas. Hang on: school yearbooks come out at the end of the school year, in Spring, and are carried around for maybe a few days after that. Who brings their high school yearbook to a restaurant the next Christmas?

Nah; not plausible. But plausible as a con, given that it reinforces the image of Moore as someone who chases younger girls—high school age.

Moore's legal team has demanded that the yearbook be submitted to an independent party to enable forensic analysis by handwriting experts. Gloria Allred, the publicity-hound attorney handling the accuser's case, has refused. I see no reason for this other than that she knows it is a forgery. If she thought it was genuine, she wold be eager to do this.

Another point, noted by Rush Limbaugh, is that the accuser says she was locked in Moore's car, and could not escape. Limbaugh points out that child locks, the kind controlled by the driver, did not appear in cars until a few years after the incident is claimed to have occurred. So why could she not have opened the door?

If Moore really is a pedophile, note that, according to everything the psychologists say currently, pedophilia is incurable. That is why we have this current hysteria about having sex offenders registers, and notifying neighbours if they move into an area, no matter how long ago the recorded crime took place. Accordingly, if the charges are true, there should not just be incidents 38 years ago. There should logically be continued incidents up to the present day. Instead, Breitbart.com, which has always been in Moore's corner, has published a stream of character references by people who ought to know saying Moore has always been a perfect gentleman for as long as they have known him. For what that is worth.

All we have so far, is one claimed incident almost 40 years ago. This tends to disprove the claim, unless we soon get others. The likelier picture is of a guy who, in his thirties, and single, was looking for a wife, and had a preference for younger women. A religious guy might, since virginity might matter a lot to him. Possibly he was socially awkward, and not always good at reading the signals of consent. Always a tricky business for any man.



Eat. Brains.



On Hearing Browning and Yeats Recite on the Webpage of the BBC

A poet is the most unpoetical thing in existence.
Browning sounding fatuous;
Great Yeats slouching Innisward
Soul fastened to a dying ego
Something seeming stuck upside his nose.
Dead men do recite sad tales.

In the static and commotion
Of Andrew Motion’s
Digital BBC jubilee of the spoken word.

There it is. Ecce. Ick.
Poetry is dead, and stretched prone on the mortuary table;
Amidst the high-pitched keening of its ghosts.
We knew it was dead on paper.
But it seems its death can just as well be spread
By word of mouth.
Sentiment aside,
Who can be surprised?
The skylark Shelley heard is dead and rotten
If bird it ever was;
And all of Basho’s blossoms have fallen long ago.

So let it be with poets. They are only the sort of people after all
As you might elbow in the supermarket,
Or jostle in the mall.

And so let it be with the static and commotion
Of Andrew Motion’s
Digital BBC jubilee of the spoken word.

And yet, and yet;
Can't I still hear that skylark call
And see those bright pink blossoms?
How is it the waves of Innisfree lap clear in my third ear?

Poetry is neither sight nor sound; nor type, nor lip, nor good read hearing—
It is the resurrection and the life.
It is Orpheus from underground;
For the Word, without the flesh, shall rise again.

And all of Allan Ginsberg’s ancient Molochs knock
Each against the last against the corridors of memory
Ancestral voices prophecying war once more.

A door opens; a stone is thrown away;
And Carl Solomon shall rise again;
And welcome back, Allan, Willie, Robert, John.
Welcome back, not as zombie flesh, thank God, not to glassy eye, nor weary ear;
But resurrected, perfected, transformed utterly.

-- Stephen K. Roney


Wednesday, November 15, 2017

By All Means, Let's Have More Aboriginal History



Saskatchewan Education Minister Bronwyn Eyre (Government of Saskatchewan photo)

Bronwyn Eyre, Saskatchewan's Education Minister, is facing heat for supposedly saying in the legislature that she fears there is too much aboriginal history in the school history curriculum. There is currently a petition circulating demanding her resignation. At last count, it had over 2000 signatures.

Eyre was especially troubled, she said later in a reporters' scrum, by a French assignment brought home by her son, which asked him to contrast traditional understanding of the Earth among First Nations with traditional understandings among Western Europeans. First Nations, it suggested, felt a sense of responsibility towards Mother Earth. Europeans, by contrast, saw the Earth as of only economic value.

Troublingly, Eyre's actual speech does not seem to be posted anywhere online—including at her own site—which means we must take the media's word for what she said. Which is often not reliable.

The quote I keep seeing, however, is that Eyre said “there has come to be at once too much wholesale infusion into the curriculum, and at the same time, too many attempts to mandate material into it both from the inside and by outside groups.”

If this is the essence of what she said, she is certainly right. There is something gravely wrong with the fact that her comments are controversial.

We ought to keep politics out of the school curriculum. We ought not to have a French assignment that obliges us to accept as truth some assertion that is itself debatable, and actively debated in the wider society. That is child abuse and attempted mind control. It is antithetical to education. It is the sort of thing I myself, as a teacher, find too common, and profoundly offensive.

It would be fine to have a French assignment that dealt with an issue of the day; it would be fine to have a French assignment that asked students to compare and contrast European and First Nations views of the environment. It is not okay to have a French assignment that, in doing so, tells the students what they are supposed to think those views are. The more so since in the assignment given, the information presented as indisputable fact is false.

The issue has been twisted by special interest groups into the Minister supposedly saying we should have less aboriginal history in the schools. If she did say this, however, it is not in the quote always given. That looks more like a plea that we have more actual aboriginal history in the schools, rather than just assertions snuck in to other subjects.

If there were more aboriginal history in the schools, it might not be happy news for present-day First Nations lobbyists. It is probably the last thing they really want. History is based on written sources, and the written sources we have pretty systematically contradict the claims of the aboriginal lobby.

It would be instructive for many, for example, to actually read the texts of the treaties agreed to and signed. They bear no relation to the current First Nations claims. It would be instructive to read the accounts by early explorers and missionaries of the environmental practices of the First Nations. They were the very reverse of solicitous towards the natural environment. They were profligate and wasteful, to European eyes.

Western European civilization is historically almost unique in seeing the natural environment as something of intrinsic value, and under our care.

By all means, let's have more aboriginal history.




Monday, November 13, 2017

More on Moore



As I suggested might happen, another accusation has come out against Roy Moore, and it is serious: an aggressive sexual assault on a sixteen-year-old. With three accusations, and two of them serious, I believe he should step aside. If he does not, nobody should vote for him. He may yet be innocent; but there is not time to prosecute the matter before the election. If he is prosecuted later, and found innocent, he can run again, and ought then to be given a sympathetic hearing.

But for now, the chances are too good that the charges are true. We now have the word of three women against one man. Mind you, this is not yet as strong as the evidence against Jian Ghomeshi, back in 2016. He too had three accusers, and their claims were more serious. And he turned out to be innocent.

The issue is complicated as well by a general prejudice against Southern US culture, which traditionally, like most cultures, sees nothing wrong with older men dating younger women. Let us be clear: there is nothing wrong with older men dating younger women: that is purely prejudice. The age of consent in Alabama is sixteen.

The issue here is sexual assault.





The Factory School



To fix the schools, we need better teachers. We need a better curriculum. But there is one more thing we need, and it is also easy to get, if we have the will. We need better classrooms.

The schools we have now are basically modeled on factories. This is supposedly for efficiency. It does not work. Children are not identical, like car parts, and cannot be treated as such. Worse, treating them as though they are identical objects is an awful lesson in civics in a free democracy.

It is not possible to pitch a lesson properly to all the students in a large class. The dumbest will not get it, and will be left behind. The smartest will be bored out of their minds, and tune out. Most teachers worry only, if at all, about the dumb kids, and tend to slow it all down. Making it worse for the smartest ones.

There is no way around this, in a large class.

Ironically, it was probably better in the old one-room schoolhouse. With a mix of students at different levels, there could be no attempt to have them learn in lock-step.

We used to stream students, to reduce this problem: there were dumb classes and smart classes. This has become politically incorrect. By this system, kids were consigned when young to permanent failure. So we threw them all together into one class, making the problem worse.

The current “efficient” system is insanely wasteful. Properly, no student need fail. Everyone can learn anything; it is just a question of how long it will take them. We end up putting kids through twelve years of schooling, and they come out the other side, and perhaps have learned little or nothing. We have wasted their childhoods.

Fortunately, we now have a simple solution: we teach with computers. With computers, each lesson can be automatically paced to suit each student. If a student does not get the point of a lecture or explanation, he or she can watch the video again, or watch another video on the same topic.


Sunday, November 12, 2017

Roy Moore



On Judge Roy Moore, things seem to be getting distorted. The last I saw, there were exactly two accusations of genuine impropriety: one of aggressively propositioning a 14-year-old, and one of giving alcohol to someone 18. Neither, even if true, are that far out of line. He is also accused of dating, and kissing, a 17-year-old and an 18-year-old, when he was in his thirties. Take away any ageist prejudice, and there is simply nothing wrong with that. It is traditional in most cultures to have a similar age difference, and by Alabama law the women were above the age of consent, 16.

Note an important distinction here between the Moore case and the current Hollywood scandals. Aside from their particular actions, the Hollywood accused are accused of using a position of power to exploit others for sex. Even if the charges are true, this is not so for Moore. He was just another eligible bachelor going on dates.

So we have two accusations? More may come out, but that is not enough to presume guilt, in the middle of an election campaign, when his opponents have every motive to smear him with false allegations. In good faith, he is still innocent until proven guilty.


Korea, Summer, 1951



Korea, Summer, 1951: A Canadian Who Did Not Survive Remembers

August in Asia is hotter than death;
Christ, that a cold rain could fall!
Like the rains that I knew where the jackpines grew
In Canada, when I was small.

Every rock, every brick, is as hot as a wick,
And wickedly ripples the air;
If I could I would go where the sweet Chinooks blow,
For I know of no night fevers there.

I don't that much mind that I die here or there;
When you're dead, you're just dead, as a rule.
But please don't cremate me, deep-freeze me in state--
Damn Sam McGee, let me die cool.

-- Stephen K. Roney


Saturday, November 11, 2017

Remembrance Day



We are the dead

It's a hell of a way from yesterday
And all behind is burning.
We frog-march on to invisible dawn
From whence there is no turning.
There was a war, there is a war, there ever a war will be;
Who was that raving charlatan we hanged on Calvary?
Each human heart is blown apart
Six ways before September
The whores of chance hex backward glance
And delicate lads dismember.
There was a war, there is a war, there ever a war will be;
The carrion chorus sounds above Megiddo’s bloody sea.
Love a thing, and watch it die
And only death's forever;
In wave-swept graves in parts we lie
And yet each year remember.
There was a war, there is a war, there ever a war will be;
The bloody track leads back from where we nailed him to a tree.
There's no escape from sorrow, boys,
Between here and high heaven;
Only pray the guns may pause
In the eleventh month, on the eleventh day,
As bells toll eleven.

-- Stephen K. Roney 

Friday, November 10, 2017

Sutherland Springs



In the wake of one more mass shooting in the USA, at the Sutherland Springs Baptist Church, there are the inevitable cries for tougher gun legislation. Along with the accusation that the NRA is holding Americans hostage, in the supposed interest of corporate profits. It all plays well on the left.

https://www.facebook.com/NowThisPolitics/videos/1732638220100994/

But it is nonsense, and dangerous nonsense.

I have no love for guns. I do not hunt. I certainly make no money from guns. But there is just no reason to suppose that more restrictions on gun ownership would do any good, and there is reason to believe they would do harm. The circumstances in Texas demonstrate why. The shooter had no legal right under current law to own a gun. So tougher laws would have done nothing to stop him. The shooting spree was stopped, on the other hand, by a neighbour in legal possession of a gun. Tougher laws might have taken that gun out of his hands.

This should not be hard to understand: if you are not going to obey the laws against murder, why would you obey the laws against gun ownership?

So calling for tougher gun laws is like supposing a flock without a shepherd is safer from wolves. A lot of people at all times make that argument, but it is nuts and will always be nuts.

Ah, gun control advocates will say, look at the statistics. The US has a relatively high number of guns in private hands, and it has relatively many mass shootings. And this does seem to make intuitive sense. If there are more guns around, surely they are more likely to be used too. And if there are more guns, there are more guns liable to fall into the wrong hands.




But look at the statistics. Here is a chart published recently in the New York Times, not a source sympathetic to guns. There is no relationship between number of guns owned and the incidence of mass shootings. If there were, the dots should all line up in single file along an imaginary perpendicular line, running from bottom left to top right. They plainly do not. Finland and Switzerland, for example, have very high rates of private gun ownership; but very low rates of gun violence. And this, after all, makes sense: if more guns are liable to fall into the wrong hands, more guns are also liable to fall into the right hands. If everyone owned and carried a gun, that might actually be the best way to end gun violence. It would be like the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction among nations: pull out a gun, and you are instantly in a Mexican standoff. There is probably a reason why these mass shootings almost always happen in designated “gun-free zones.”

Aside from these comparative statistics among countries, consider too comparing the statistics over time. Over the past fifty years, American gun laws have become progressively more strict. Over the same time period, mass shootings have become progressively more common.

After all, if you think about it, guns are actually more valuable for defending against mass murder than they are for committing mass murder. As we have seen repeatedly, it is as easy to kill large numbers of people, if that is your goal, with a bomb, with a vehicle, or with an airplane. The aggressor has the advantage of time to prepare, and can rig up any number of different methods. It is the defender who does not have time, who cannot prepare, who must be able to react quickly and with some precision. The gun is the ideal weapon in this case.

Moreover, there is a reason why Finland and Switzerland have high rates of gun ownership. And it is instructive. The high rate of gun ownership is mandated by government and intended to make those two countries unconquerable. Historically, it has worked. Since Napoleon, nobody has been foolish enough to invade little Switzerland. The Soviet Union was dumb enough to invade little Finland in 1939, and had their big red butts kicked. Any invader faces a fully armed populace, impossible to pacify. The regular army can, if necessary, draft civilians as soldiers and expect them to know immediately how to use a gun effectively in battle.

Currently, the USA has something of the same advantage. And the USA has many foreign enemies.

At the same time, for much the same reason, as the framers of the US Constitution well understood, an armed populace is a guarantee against oppressive government.

Have you ever wondered why democracy came early to England, and not to so many other nations?

Chalk it up to the deadly English longbow. English yeomen trained it its use as a matter of public duty. And the great thing about the English longbow is that it could take down a man on horseback, in full armour. As was demonstrated so well at Agincourt.

This meant that the nobles, who could afford pricey things like armour and horses, simply could not dictate to the yeomen. Any man in his home might, if he felt it necessary, hold off the local noble. If his neighbours agreed, the government was suddenly in big trouble.

Everything else emerged from this. A man's home became his castle—because it could in fact be defended. Cooperation and persuasion became the rule of English life.

The traditional Swiss pike and pike formation worked in a similar way. It was proof against a cavalry charge. The commons had to be convinced, not ruled.

Accordingly, having fewer guns in fewer hands would seem to do no good, and would seem to hold the potential to do great harm.

So why the eternal demand for more gun control?

I think it plays to a common human urge to deny the existence of moral evil. After all, if we accept that there is evil, we must next examine our own acts. Better to blame some inanimate object.


Thursday, November 09, 2017

Down with STEM


Improving the quality of teachers is not the only thing we need to do to improve the schools. The curriculum is also a problem, and as much of a problem. We are endlessly perverse in what we choose to teach.

I know there will be howls of protest over this, but the truth is, we waste kids' time in teaching them so much science and math. Everyone but the kids loves STEM. But STEM is not the way to go.

Yes, these fields are important for a lot of good jobs; and important for the advancement of our physical comfort. But for the majority of students who will not go on to STEM careers, it is pretty much a waste of their time. As the old saw goes, how much of your high school algebra did you use today? When today did you need to work out the circumference of a circle? Yet the time lost studying these things kept you away from learning things that might have been important to you in your real life and real career.

If, on the other hand, you do need these bits of knowledge in your job or your life later on, you have almost certainly forgotten them by then. You must pick them up again on the fly anyway—which, fortunately, is easy enough, when and if they are important to you.

Teaching science is an even worse time sink; at least the way we teach it now. We teach it as a set of known facts and “laws.” This is really the antithesis of science, which relies on taking nothing on authority. Inevitably, a significant portion of the “facts” and “laws” the typical student learns in public school are disproven a few years later—sometimes before the text goes to press. The student then wastes his time not just filling his head with useless information, but with things he will later need to laboriously unlearn, or look a fool.

We ought to teach the history of science, to show what science really is: a method, not a set of conclusions. And, of course, we ought to teach the scientific method. We claim to do that sometimes now, but we really never do. We will assign the class an experiment with a known, pre-ordained conclusion. Then, if the experiment does not produce the intended results, we require the student to explain why it failed. This is still teaching the opposite of the scientific method. Moreover, it seems deliberately pointless and boring.

At the same time, there are a lot of essential things, things everyone needs, that we do not teach. Most important among them are ethics and religion. They are, and have always been understood to be, the essence of an education. Unless you understand your goal, nothing else makes any sense.

But these are things we cannot teach in public schools. We do not want government teaching ethics and religion: that way totalitarianism lies. The only solution seems to be either funding all denominational schools, or school vouchers.

Aside from this, we need to teach basic skills: reading, writing, and arithmetic. Which we do, but not very well. Unfortunately, the best way to teach such basic skills is through direct instruction, or as teachers currently call it disparagingly, “drill and kill.” Memorization is itself an invaluable skill, and we ought to teach it deliberately: the practice of memorizing things is of value over and above the value of the things memorized. Unfortunately, far from teaching it, we currently tend to prohibit it.

Beyond and after this, we need to teach rhetoric, parliamentary procedure, and logic, which we do not currently teach at all. For any position in life, it is important to be able to think, to persuade, and to avoid being conned or manipulated. And it is important to be able to work in groups. Yes, we currently make students work in groups, endlessly, but then we do not show them how—or more often, we set up the groups so that they will not work. They become no more than tools for conformity and bullying. Kids need to learn how to run a meeting.

We need to teach basic bookkeeping—vital to any business, but also vital to anyone else, for personal finance.

On top of this, as I think E.D. Hirsch has demonstrated, there is a good case that we need to teach a core of shared cultural knowledge. Without it, you are left outside the cultural dialogue. You cannot read a good newspaper or a college text. This is where history and literature, in particular, come in. And that does not mean some recent book by a “minority” author, for the sake of supposed diversity. And it does not mean the history of some “minority” group. By the logic of the need, that means looking at the most familiar and established authors, and the aspects of history everybody has been most familiar with over the past generations. All those dead white males. Otherwise the exercise is pointless, and another huge waste of students' time.

Teaching a second language might be a good idea, but certainly not the way we teach it now. Growing up in Quebec, we all studied French from grade 3 through high school. And I doubt anyone ever became fluent in French as a result.

The problem was with the goal. It is crazy to try for conversational fluency in a classroom. Conversational fluency comes with speaking practice. It is almost impossible to manage this in a classroom. At best, it is a wildly inefficient use of student time and resources. If you want fluency, you get it on the streets, in the playgrounds, watching TV, hanging out with friends, shopping in the stores. In a classroom, the only useful approach is the old, now always disparaged and condemned “grammar-translation method.” It is universally condemned because it will never make you fluent in the language. True enough, it that is what you want. But it will give you a reading knowledge. This gives you access to all the most important thoughts and all the most important conversations in that language. That is not such a small thing in itself. More importantly, in having to analyse grammar, it will teach you how language works. And to understand how language works is to understand how thought works.

For the same reason, even apart from its own utility, and perhaps even as a suitable replacement, it would be immensely valuable to teach all students how to program. Unlike geometry or algebra, programming skills have an immediate practical payoff. You can make things, right away.

These are the things that everyone can benefit from knowing. If a student then decides to go into some STEM field, that is the time to learn what is specific to that field.

Of course, we are all charging full steam ahead in the opposite direction.


Wednesday, November 08, 2017

The Light That Failed


One of the saddest things is the world is to see the light of learning go out. Especially in your own children. And I have seen it several times.

At age three or four, kids always seem to be looking forward with great excitement to at last going to school. Certainly my kids were.

By about grade three or four, they always hate school.

Something is wrong here. Love of learning is spontaneous. All of us naturally love to learn.

And that craving for knowledge does not disappear: it is redirected outside of school to learning how to skateboard, how to twerk, how to beat some video game, how to solve Rubik's cube, how to photoshop a picture, how to do almost anything. Learning something new is one of life's great joys.

Only in school is learning considered subversive. Children are actively discouraged from learning, and only “bad” kids fail to get the message. Time taken learning something is seen as time taken away from school.

How could we manage to screw things up so badly?

To begin with, without a free market, any enterprise soon comes to be run for the benefit of the employees, not the customers. Our schools are there for the teachers and the administrators.

Notably, the dumbest university students end up in education, excepting only those who major in public administration—and therefore the dumbest run the schools.

One test in Massachusetts showed that most aspiring public school teachers in that state--73%--could not achieve math standards required of their grade 5 students. The students are on average smarter, and know more, than their teachers. How's that likely to work?

There is a simple principle here: you cannot teach what you do not know.

And another: the best students will be the best teachers. These are the experts at how to learn.

Currently, we are recruiting the worst.

It may be, as many argue, that the best students do not want to be teachers. But it might be worth testing that hypothesis. It may be instead that the best students do not want to go to ed school.

By all reports, you learn nothing there. It is just a lot of busy work. This would be especially frustrating to anyone who is a good student and who loves learning. The educational theories they promote are usually pop psychology: right brain-left brain, “learning styles,” and other notions that never have any scientific basis, nor any basis in the humanities. They have all been pretty comprehensively disproven in the massive “Operation Follow Through” project in the 1970s: every technique sponsored by an ed school did worse than the control.

On the other hand, anyone who has survived classroom life as a student for 16 years or more, particularly at an academically rigorous college, necessarily has a thorough grounding in teaching techniques: in what works, and in what does not work. He or she is not likely to learn anything more of value in a few weeks of classroom observation at ed school. Nor is there any scientific basis for believing classroom observation tells us anything of importance.

In order to justify their existence, the ed schools must continually come up with new theories to teach their students something they do not already know, something that would not have occurred to them naturally, or that they would already have been exposed to in 16 years of classroom attendance. Almost inevitably, these tend to be extremely bad teaching ideas--things no competent teacher would have done. Which the ed school graduate then feels required to introduce to the classrooms of the wider world.

How would that work?

And there is another problem. Any self-governing profession is in essence a cartel, in which the members get to choose their competitors. They have a vested interest in not selecting someone much better at the job them themselves. Accordingly, once the teaching profession established itself as the special preserve of the academically inadequate, it began to work hard to keep good students, and good teachers, out; out of the ed schools, and, if they survive, out of the schools themselves. My daughter, who has been going to a private school, asks, “Why do the best teachers always get fired?”

It is true. And obvious enough to a ten-year-old.

The best prescription for improving the schools is 1) do not hire grads in education, 2) bust the teachers' unions, 3) do not put hiring decisions in the hands of teachers.

Hire the candidate with the best marks from the best school, measured by SAT score required to get in, with a major in the subject they will teach. A grad degree in the subject if available. This is not complicated.


Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Cuddle Buddies


An interesting new career option has opened up here in the Philippines. Not sure how this is going to work:

http://www.cebucuddlers.com/

It seems to me it would indeed be therapeutic, and there seems to be nothing sexual about it.

On the other hand, it is playing with human emotions. That is a dangerous game. It is hard not to feel anything emotionally towards someone you have hugged for an hour. Almost certainly, too, you would not just hug for the hour. Accept that sex is ruled out: you would then chat with the person, get to know them, tell them about yourself.

And then they leave.

Withdrawal could be a bitch, especially for those lonely enough to be in need of the cuddle.

It would probably amount to emotional prostitution; and all prostitution is emotional prostitution. The actual sex act is trivial.

Granted, it would also resemble therapy.

And what does that say about therapy?

On the other hand, if you are going to therapy, this at least would be a lot cheaper.













Sunday, November 05, 2017

The Discussion Is Over



Hey--you know where you can put it?

Someone is demanding that Louis Riel’s walking stick, now in the Manitoba Museum, be “repatriated” to “the Métis.”

This is odd. Riel is commonly considered the founder of Manitoba. What spot could therefore be more apt for his walking stick than the Manitoba Museum? Why should it be in private hands?

And why should any government entity be handing public property over to some private entity, without compensation?

In any legal sense, the Manitoba Museum is the rightful owner. According to the National Post story, Riel gave the walking stick to a driver named Will Banbury on his way to prison. Banbury’s family donated it to the Winnipeg Rifles. The Winnipeg Rifles donated it to the Manitoba Museum. Each in turn was the legal owner; nobody stole it from anyone. Did Riel not have the right to give his stick to Banbury? Did Banbury not have the right to give his stick to the Rifles? Did the Rifles not have the right to give the stick to the Museum? By what right does a third party now step in and claim ownership?

Is it on the grounds that the members of the designated Métis organization share some ethnic heritage with Riel? So what? Must all memorials to Sir John A. Macdonald belong exclusively to some Scottish-Canadian Society, and all memorials to Sir Guy Carleton belong to some Order of Irish-Canadians? What about the fact that Riel, as Métis, was half French? How can you ignore the ancestral rights, then, of French-Manitobans, to anything he once owned?

And it is not as though any Métis organization can claim to represent all those of Riel’s ethnicity. Any such group is a self-selected private organization, democratically elected by nobody; and even who is and who is not Métis is open to debate. Why should this particular group of self-declared Métis get the artifact, and not this other one?

There is only one fair and honourable solution: Riel’s walking stick should be in the Manitoba Museum, open to and owned by all Manitobans.


The Madness of King Lear


Abbey, King Lear, 1898

Freud has offered Shakespeare as one of his authorities on the nature of mental illness. It seems then to be avoiding the evidence if we do not examine Shakespeare’s one play that is most clearly about madness: King Lear. Indeed, Lear has been called “the primary enactment of psychic breakdown in English literary history.”[i] If Shakespeare had some special insight into the nature of insanity, the essence of it would be here, rather than in Hamlet.

And it seems right to look to Shakespeare for insight here. His literary talent demonstrates that he was one of the greatest minds who ever lived. He is especially good on human nature. He may have been specifically the greatest psychologist in history.

Freud knows the play. He deals with it in his essay “The Theme of the Three Caskets.” And he ascribes to it an effect on the imagination comparable to that of Oedipus Rex: he calls it one of Shakespeare’s “most powerfully moving dramas,”[ii] and the final scene “one of the culminating points of tragedy in modern drama.”[iii]

Oddly, however, even though it deals with mental illness, and this is Freud’s specialty, Freud does not mention mental illness in his essay. And even though it deals with the relationship of a father with his children, and this is where Freud says mental illness comes from, Freud says, “The relationship of a father to his children, which might be a fruitful source of many dramatic situations, is not turned to further account in the play”[iv] This is not true: the entire play is about the relationship of fathers to children, Lear and Gloucester. Surely what Freud is really saying here is that the relationship is not what he expects, that it lends no support to his Oedipus complex.

And it does not. To begin with, it is the parent, not the child, who goes mad. And at the age of eighty plus, too late to discover an unresolved desire for your dead mother or an urge to kill your long-dead father. By Freud’s theory, Lear’s daughters should want to marry him; instead, they try to kill him.

Freud sees the play as a meditation on death. It is the story of an old man, Lear, who fears his end. Cordelia, Freud suggests, is the “Goddess of Death.” In the last scene, Lear becomes reconciled to the idea, and expires.

There are a few problems with this reading. For one thing, there is no “Goddess of Death” in most cultures, and not in Lear’s or Shakespeare’s. But even before we consider that point, it seems arbitrary to view one character in the play, Cordelia, as less real than the others, as allegorical. Yes, plays can be allegorical, but generally not one character in an otherwise realistic play, and not without some clear indication that this is so. Why should we not believe Cordelia to be just as much a living, breathing, albeit fictional, person as Lear, or Gloucester? Is there anything that sets her apart as symbolic?

Freud’s evidence is that she is silent, and one of three sisters. “Psycho-analysis will tell us,” he explains, “that in dreams dumbness is a common representation of death.”[v]

This does seem sensible enough: if someone does not speak, it is indeed a clue that they are dead. And if a character never speaks, that they are symbolic. However, Cordelia is not, in fact, silent. She is not dumb. She does not say nothing in the play; she says “Nothing.” And proceeds to talk like all the other characters. She is also inclined to stand, enter, exit, and walk about the stage. She is, to all appearances, a human being, and not a thing.

We also have to take Freud’s word that dumbness is a common representation of death in dreams. We are not privy to the evidence he claims to have. But would we normally think so in a literary work? “Dumb” can have other connotations: most obviously, as common usage implies, stupidity. For a Christian audience, the first association of a voluntary silence, like Cordelia’s, might be religious: Christ’s silence before Pilate, or the silence of the cloister. One also thinks of the right to remain silent in English common law―in what is set up as something like a trial before a judge.

The Fates: Ghisi, 1558


Freud then points out that the Moerae or Fates of classical Greece were three sisters—and Cordelia is also one of three sisters! And the last of the three Moerae cut the thread of life, determining the time of death. Ergo, Cordelia, the third sister, is the “Goddess of Death.”

But the motif of three sisters does not obviously suggest the Moerae. The three sisters motif is everywhere in Greek myth: there are also three Graces, three Horae, three Hesperides, three Gorgons, three Graeae, three Erinyes. Psyche was one of three sisters; so was Cinderella; so was Belle in “Beauty and the Beast.” Paris judged three goddesses. And then there is the Christian Trinity. There is no reason, given all these classic sets of three, to assume the Fates to be the fundamental reference. And the Fates are not always shown as three: sometimes there is one Fate, sometimes there are two, sometimes an indefinite number. The Moerae are often portrayed as old and ugly; some of these other trinities are young and lovely, as are Cordelia and her sisters.

The Moerae, moreover, do not preside over death. They preside over pregnancy and birth. Atropos indeed cuts the thread of life; but this is as a prophesy. She is not the “Goddess of Death,” and does not appear at death. Death is usually a male figure: in Greece, home of the Moerae, he is Hades, as god of the underworld, or Thanatos, a winged young man. In Jewish tradition, he is the Angel of Death, Azriel. For Christians, he is St. Michael, or the Grim Reaper. In India and China, he is King Yama, also male.

Grim Reaper


Freud suggests the image of the Valkyries here, and they are indeed female.[vi] In Nordic tradition, they appear at death in battle to sweep the fallen soldier from the field. And Norse myth does, rare among mythologies, know a Goddess of Death, Hel. That may be significant to Freud, writing in a Germanic milieu. But neither Lear, Shakespeare, nor his audience were Norse. Lear would have been a Briton, a Celt; Arawn, the British death god, is again male. The other gods Shakespeare has him mention are Graeco-Roman. And there is a further problem: neither Lear nor Cordelia die on the battlefield. Nor is it Cordelia who carries Lear’s corpse at the end of the play. It is Lear who carries hers. It is Lear in the role of the Valkyrie.

Hughes, Valkyrie, 1902


There is another problem with seeing Cordelia as Atropos, the Fate who cuts the thread of life. Atropos is the oldest of the three sisters. Cordelia is the youngest. That makes her Clotho, the spinner. If the sisters are the Moerae, Atropos is Goneril.

One is left to suspect that Freud felt he had to deal with King Lear in some way, since it was so obviously pertinent; and this is the best he could do.

But do we have evidence here of the Dymphna complex?

We do; especially if we accept one premise: Lear is in the position of the child, and Goneril and Regan of the abusive parents. This is a reversal of the usual situation, but it is a reversal the play itself acknowledges. The fool says

“Thou madest thy
daughters thy mothers ... when thou gavest them
the rod, and put’st down thine own breeches.” (Act 1, Scene 4)

Goneril says drily, “Old fools are babes again.” (Act 1, Scene 3)

And Lear himself says, of Cordelia:

“I loved her most and thought to set my rest
On her kind nursery.” (Act 1, Scene 1)

He is suddenly wholly dependent, like a child, on the good intentions of his daughters. And they, being narcissistic, have none.

As he often does, Shakespeare gives us a second example of his theme: Gloucester, who is similarly made dependent, like a child, on being blinded. And he is, like Lear, betrayed by a child now in the position of a parent: Edmund, who has assumed his title.

In fact, we have four examples of the dynamic of abuse. At the outset of the play, Lear and Gloucester are parents who abuse their children, who treat them unjustly, and Cordelia and Edgar are the abused. But then tables are turned, and Lear and Gloucester are abused, at the hands of the now all-powerful Goneril, Regan, and Edmund.

Lear and the Fool Scheffer 1834

Cordelia flees into exile; Edgar feigns madness; Gloucester becomes depressed and tries suicide; Lear goes mad.

These are perhaps the four possible outcomes Shakespeare sees for the abused.

Let us then examine the play through the lens of our Dymphna Complex:


1. The parent is king or queen



This is literally true of Lear when he abuses Cordelia, then of Goneril and Regan when they abuse Lear. Gloucester is a noble of high degree, an Earl, when he abuses Edgar; Edmund holds the same title when he abuses Gloucester.

We have posited that kingship here is symbolic of two things: narcissism, and holding total power over the victim. The latter is plain enough. What of the former?

The opening scene of the play shows Regan and Goneril as spectacularly insincere and manipulative in their speech, like Polonius in Hamlet. They are ready to say anything, make any promise, that will further their interests, with no thought of keeping it. This is classic narcissistic behaviour. DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual): “Mutuality constrained by little genuine interest in others’ experiences and predominance of a need for personal gain” (DSM 5). “Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends” (DSM 4).

Lear, in turn, is narcissist at this point in demanding their praise: “Excessive attempts to attract and be the focus of the attention of others; admiration seeking” (DSM 5). “Requires excessive admiration” (DSM 4).

Their actions as well as their words suggest Regan and Goneril see others as objects and not as humans. Their father means nothing to them, once he is no longer able to give them things. Shakepeare’s source material, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s The History of the Kings of England, sums it up in an observation by Lear: “While I had anything to give they valued me, being friends, not to me, but to my gifts: they loved me then, but they loved my gifts much more: when my gifts ceased, my friends vanished.”[vii]

Goneril’s husband too means nothing to her, once she finds someone she considers better.

Lear in turn—the imperious Lear of Act 1—shows that he thinks of Cordelia as a possession. He says,

“Better thou
Hadst not been born than not to have pleased me better.” (Act 1, Scene 1)

She exists and has any right to exist, in other words, only to please him.

Cordelia, Yearnes, 1888

That Gloucester is a narcissist is less apparent. He takes great personal risk, after all, to help Lear in his distress. This, however, happens after he has come to believe himself abused by his child, Edgar. It may show a change in character caused by this experience, not his original narcissism. Before this point, he shows the same tendency to spy and to manipulate that Polonius does in Hamlet. He demands to see the letter Edmund carries, which was not addressed to him (Act 1, Scene 2). Without assuming extreme narcissism, it is difficult to account for him being so ready, with so little evidence, to suspect Edgar. DSM 4: “Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him.” Would a normal parent assume so quickly that their son is plotting to kill them, and put out a death warrant without first wanting to question him? After all, why, as Shakespeare has pointed out in Hamlet, would a son chance trying to kill his father, even with no love lost, when he is going to inherit anyway? Besides the inherent risk, it would set a dangerous precedent. There is no motive.

Yet the tendency to spy and to suspect Edgar is so ingrained in Gloucester that Edmund can count on them to work his plot.

Gloucester also seems callous towards the feelings of others in quite unnecessarily introducing his son Edmund, in the latter’s presence, as a bastard—almost his first lines in the play:

“His breeding, sir, hath been at my charge: I have
so often blushed to acknowledge him, that now I am
brazed to it.” (Act 1, Scene 1)

He then blames first Edmund’s mother, then Edmund, for his bastardy, and avoids placing any blame to himself:

“Sir, this young fellow’s mother could: whereupon
she grew round-wombed, and had, indeed, sir, a son
for her cradle ere she had a husband for her bed.
Do you smell a fault?” (Act 1, Scene 1)
“… this knave came something saucily into the
world before he was sent for.” (Act 1, Scene 1)

This should strike the audience as odd and dishonourable behaviour. DSM 4: “Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.” DSM 5: “Impaired ability to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.” Narcissists will always blame others, never themselves.

Edmund says things that are similarly odd, marking him too as narcissistic. He makes much of being a bastard, and considers himself unfairly treated as a result. And we are inclined to sympathize, since his father has been so inconsiderate. But his claim makes little sense.

Gloucester claims he loves Edmund as much as his legitimate son, Edgar. We might otherwise doubt this, but Edmund himself attests to it:

“Our father’s love is to the bastard Edmund
As to the legitimate: fine word,―legitimate!” (Act 1, Scene 2)

So he does not have reason to feel slighted by his father. Nor does he have good reason to feel discriminated against in his inheritance. Legitimate or not, Edgar is introduced as the elder son. Whether they were both legitimate, or both illegitimate, the rule of primogeniture means Edgar would inherit. The only way Edgar might not were if Edmund were legitimate, and Edgar illegitimate.

Whatever we might think today in distant lands of everything going to the eldest son, Shakespeare’s original audience would probably have found this fair, since it was the standard practice; and there were reasons for it. It was the way to keep large estates intact, and great families great. It was more shocking to divide your kingdom among your daughters.

Indeed, this is another example, and perhaps the grossest example, of Lear’s narcissism. In doing this, he is treating the kingdom as his personal possession; at the probable cost of future civil war. This is forecast within the play, and prevented only by the death of his daughters.

So Edmund’s claim of being mistreated and denied his rights seems wrong. It perhaps counts as what a psychiatrist calls grandiosity. DSM 4: “expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements.” “Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations.” DSM 5: “Feelings of entitlement, either overt or covert.”

Like Goneril and Reagan, too, Edmund has no concern for his father as a human being; nor for his brother. Just as Gloucester, in power, shows shockingly little concern for his son Edgar.

2. The parent wants to have sex with the child, or wants to kill them

Goneril and Regan want to kill their father. It is not just that they turn an octogenarian out on the heath during a raging storm. Gloucester reports a definite plan to kill Lear:

“His daughters seek his death… Good friend, I prithee, take him in thy arms; I have o’erheard a plot of death upon him.” (Act 3, Scene 6)

Gloucester, still in power, similarly puts out a warrant on his son Edgar.

Edmund, then in transition to the role of the parent, betrays his father Gloucester, with reason to believe it will mean his death. Gloucester predicts that this as the likely result: “Though I die for it, as no less is threatened me” (Act 3, Scene 3).

It is common for commentators, influenced by Freud, to suggest that Lear’s interest in Cordelia is incestuous. Although it contradicts his own earlier theory that the play is about death, Freud himself endorses this in a letter written in the 1930s: “the repressed incestuous claims on the daughter’s love” are “the secret meaning of the tragedy.”[viii]

This may take a metaphor too literally. Lear’s possessiveness, like Polonius’s in Hamlet, is no doubt imaginatively comparable to incest in seeking to own the child in every sense, and in seeing the child as existing for his pleasure. This need not mean we are talking about the literal sex act. And even if Lear had in mind literal incest, note that the desire is of the parent for the child, not the child for the parent: like Dymphna, Cordelia repels the advance.

Cordelia Disinherited; Herbert, 1850


To read this as supporting Freud requires inverting the evidence. It is the Dymphna Complex.

Cordelia makes the possessiveness of Lear’s demand clear, and almost seems to refer to incest:

“Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty:
Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.” (Act 1, Scene 1)

Lear is demanding a declaration of love that would seem to include the love properly due to a husband.

Note the opening situation; it looks significant. Two suitors are in the palace to seek Cordelia’s hand. Why is it this moment that Lear chooses to divide his kingdom and give his children their inheritance? Doesn’t it look as though he is trying to forestall her engagement? It would be obviously hypocritical of her to declare her undying and total love for her father immediately before accepting a marriage proposal, requiring her to leave him and the country. The Book of Genesis describes marriage as “a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife”; so too for daughters.

There is a hint that the result of this trial is preordained. It is in the first words of the play:

“KENT
I thought the king had more affected the Duke of
Albany than Cornwall.

GLOUCESTER
It did always seem so to us: but now, in the
division of the kingdom, it appears not which of
the dukes he values most; for equalities are so
weighed, that curiosity in neither can make choice
of either’s moiety.” (Act 1, Scene 1)

They say nothing, and have apparently heard nothing, about a third portion going to Cordelia. The kingdom is to be divided between Albany and Cornwall.

Herbert: Lear and Cordelia

Lear seems therefore to be gaslighting Cordelia; a typical abusive behaviour. He perhaps wants to refuse her a dowry in hopes she will then not be able to marry. But he wants to shift the blame for this to her, to make it appear her own fault. He wins either way: if she says she loves him more than life itself, she has implicitly rejected marriage. If she says anything less, he has the excuse to deny her a dowry, so she cannot marry. His plan is disappointed when the King of France wants to wed her anyway.

It seems significant too that, in then casting her out, Lear declares himself kin to those who devour their own children:

“The barbarous Scythian,
Or he that makes his generation messes
To gorge his appetite, shall to my bosom
Be as well neighbour’d, pitied, and relieved,
As thou my sometime daughter.” (Act 1, Scene 1)

Goneril similarly gaslights Lear when she turns on him. In demanding he surrender half of his retinue, she blames them and him:

“You strike my people; and your disorder’d rabble
Make servants of their betters.” (Act 1, Scene 4)

It is all his fault.

Given the example of Hamlet, we must postulate that incest in this and similar works serves two purposes. The incest in Hamlet, after all, does not involve the child. On the one hand, it is an image of a parent overly possessive of a child, seeking to own, manipulate, and control; and seeing the child as existing only for his or her pleasure. On the other, it suggests a character whose first allegiance is to his own desires, wants, and urges, without concern for the rights of others. What he wants, he must have.

Lear’s “incestuous” demands on Cordelia suggest both meanings.

Cordelia

There is one other example of incest in the play, more literal than that of Lear with Cordelia. Edmund is involved with two sisters, Goneril and Regan. This is the same incest as is condemned in Hamlet.

“To both these sisters have I sworn my love;
Each jealous of the other, as the stung
Are of the adder” (Act 5, Scene 1)
“I was contracted to them both” (Act 5, Scene 3).

For Goneril and Gloucester, there are other sexual indiscretions, which can equally stand for someone wedded to their desires. The first thing we know about Gloucester is that he violated his marriage with an adulterous relationship. And Goneril wants Edmund to kill her husband so she can have him instead:

“You have
many opportunities to cut him off: if your will
want not, time and place will be fruitfully offered.
There is nothing done, if he return the conqueror:
then am I the prisoner, and his bed my gaol; from
the loathed warmth whereof deliver me, and supply
the place for your labour.
‘Your―wife, so I would say―’” (Act 4, Scene 6).

Goneril says plainly enough to Regan what Edmund represents to both sisters: “Mean you to enjoy him?” (Act 5, Scene 3)

She then poisons her sister as a rival.

Regan is not guilty of such a violation of sexual ethics. She may be in unseemly haste to transfer her affections from Cornwall to Edmund, but she does at least wait decently until her husband is dead. She is, however, in violation of the obligations of hospitality, in seizing and torturing Gloucester in his own home. This may be an equivalent offense: Shakespeare makes much of such a violation of hospitality in MacBeth, and a violation of hospitality figures also in Laius’s rape of Chrysippus in the Oedipus cycle.

“Gloucester: These hairs, which thou dost ravish from my chin,
Will quicken, and accuse thee: I am your host.” (Act 3, Scene 7)

She breaks the laws of hospitality too by putting Kent, as Lear’s messenger, in the stocks.

“’Tis worse than murder,” says Lear, “To do upon respect such violent outrage.” (Act 2, Scene 4)


3. The child shows symptoms of depression—sorrow, anxiety, suicide, mental suffering—as a result.

Unlike Hamlet, Lear’s madness—psychosis—is indisputable, and finely rendered. And Shakespeare seems to show it as beginning immediately as a result of the trauma of being turned on by his daughters. Hazlitt saw the core of the play as “the severing of the nearest ties of natural affection.”[ix] There can be no question: Shakespeare holds that mental illness is or can be the result of an emotional betrayal.

Dyce: Lear and the Fool in the Storm


As soon as Goneril turns on him her serpent tooth, Lear experiences the classic symptom of depression called “depersonalization”:

“Doth any here know me? This is not Lear:
Doth Lear walk thus? speak thus? Where are his eyes?
Either his notion weakens, his discernings
Are lethargied—Ha! waking? ‘tis not so.
Who is it that can tell me who I am?” (Act 1, Scene 4)

Depersonalization; DSM 4: “Persistent or recurrent experiences of feeling detached from, and as if one is an outside observer of, one’s mental processes or body (e.g., feeling like one is in a dream).” DSM 5: “Experiences of unreality, detachment, or being an outside observer with respect to one’s thoughts, feelings, sensations, body, or actions (e.g., perceptual alterations, distorted sense of time, unreal or absent self, emotional and/or physical numbing).”

It is a loss of sense of self.

Lear next feels helpless grief, the most familiar symptom of what we call depression:

“Life and death! I am ashamed
That thou hast power to shake my manhood thus;
That these hot tears, which break from me perforce,
Should make thee worth them.” (Act 1, Scene 4)
“You see me here, you gods, a poor old man,
As full of grief as age; wretched in both!
... let not women’s weapons, water-drops,
Stain my man’s cheeks! No, you unnatural hags,
I will have such revenges on you both,
That all the world shall―I will do such things,―
What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be
The terrors of the earth. You think I’ll weep
No, I’ll not weep:
I have full cause of weeping; but this heart
Shall break into a hundred thousand flaws,
Or ere I’ll weep. O fool, I shall go mad!” (Act 2, Scene 4).

Lear isolates the emotional shock itself, the pain of the betrayal: it is “sharper than a serpent’s tooth.”

“O Regan, she hath tied
Sharp-tooth’d unkindness, like a vulture, here.”

Points to his heart

“… struck me with her tongue,
Most serpent-like, upon the very heart.” (Act 2, Scene 4).

Later, on the heath, Lear declares “My wits begin to turn” (Act 3, Scene 2). Depression progresses to the more serious “illness” of schizophrenia.

He then describes the dynamics of becoming psychotic, of losing touch with the physical world that surrounds him:

“The tempest in my mind
Doth from my senses take all feeling else
Save what beats there.” (Act 3, Scene 4).

By the time he encounters Edgar as Mad Tom, he has gone completely mad. Seeing Tom, he asks,

“Hast thou given all to thy two daughters?
And art thou come to this?” (Act 3, Scene 4)

Gloucester, under the shock of a similar emotional betrayal, proceeds only as far as depression. He attests, on learning (falsely) that Edgar wants to kill him, “The grief hath crazed my wits” (Act 3, Scene 4).

He laments that he cannot, like Lear, escape his grief by going mad:

“The king is mad: how stiff is my vile sense,
That I stand up, and have ingenious feeling
Of my huge sorrows! Better I were distract:
So should my thoughts be sever’d from my griefs,
And woes by wrong imaginations lose
The knowledge of themselves.” (Act 4, Scene 6)

Since he may not, following Lear, escape into madness, Gloucester tries suicide. About to leap off the Cliffs of Dover, he says

“O you mighty gods!
This world I do renounce, and, in your sights,
Shake patiently my great affliction off:
If I could bear it longer, and not fall
To quarrel with your great opposeless wills,
My snuff and loathed part of nature should
Burn itself out.” (Act 4, Scene 6)
Shakespeare’s understanding of madness here seems clear: emotional betrayal causes depression, and depression causes psychosis. Psychosis exists as a way to escape depression.


4. The child is unusually beautiful, unusually intelligent, unusually moral, and/or unusually athletic.

We posit that the usual motive for child abuse is either greed or envy: greed to possess the child, or envy of the child for his or her exceptional gifts. Accordingly, the abused child is most often exceptional in some way. It is the exceptional child who will evoke such emotions in a narcissistic parent.

For Lear, whatever his personal qualities, the fact that he is rightful king is cause enough. So long as he exists, Regan and Goneril cannot be secure in their rule. The same is true for Gloucester: as the rightful Earl, his existence is a threat to Edmund.

For Edgar, the fact that he is eldest and legitimate makes him the obvious rival in Gloucester’s mind. He is, of the two brothers, by dint of this the exceptional child. It is striking, otherwise, that Gloucester should so easily suspect him, despite his known honesty, and never suspect Edmund. He also shows significant athletic prowess, and specifically greater athleticism than his brother: he is able to defeat both Edmund and Oswald in direct combat. He also shows striking intelligence, in being able to conceal himself as Mad Tom.

Which leaves Cordelia.

Does the play identify Cordelia as the most beautiful of the sisters? Not explicitly; but the fact that the King of France and Duke of Burgundy, foreign powers, seek her hand, attests to this. This is a step up in suitors from Goneril and Regan, who have married local nobles already subject to Lear. Moreover, France still wants her when she has no dowry. One may make a reasonable inference from this.

More obviously, Cordelia is exceptionally honest. She refuses to exaggerate her love for her father. She could, after all, have lied, as her sisters did. She even had a model to follow: she could almost have said “Me too,” more or less as Regan does. Granted that this might have been a trap, giving Lear the implicit right to forbid her marriage; if so, she still had reason to prefer this option and to lie. It would perhaps have left her unmarried, but with a third of the kingdom. Insisting on honesty was likely to leave her unmarried, and with nothing.

The same passion for honesty is characteristic of Edgar, according to Edmund:
“… and a brother noble,
Whose nature is so
far from doing harms,
That he suspects none: on whose foolish honesty
My practises ride easy.” (Act 1, Scene 2)
This honesty and righteousness may well itself evoke envy. But a conscience like this can also be a consequence of having been abused. To begin with, the experience of being oneself abused naturally makes you more sensitive and sympathetic to the sufferings of others. If love, as Jesus attests, is the root of all morality, this will make you moral.

Edgar points to this learned sympathy in the play. In a life of wandering as Mad Tom, he describes himself as:

“A most poor man, made tame to fortune’s blows;
Who, by the art of known and feeling sorrows,
Am pregnant to good pity. Give me your hand,
I’ll lead you to some biding.” (Act 4, Scene 6)

We see this transformation in both Lear and Gloucester: being, at the start of the play, callous and self-centred, through suffering they develop a sensitivity to the sufferings of others.

At the first blow, at first betrayal, by Goneril, Lear is still imperious and intolerant:

“Darkness and devils!
Saddle my horses; call my train together:
Degenerate bastard! I’ll not trouble thee.
Yet have I left a daughter.” (Act 1, Scene 4)

But when Regan and Cornwall do the same later, he is more patient:

“Fiery? the fiery duke? Tell the hot duke that―
No, but not yet: may be he is not well:
Infirmity doth still neglect all office
Whereto our health is bound; we are not ourselves
When nature, being oppress’d, commands the mind
To suffer with the body: I’ll forbear;
And am fall’n out with my more headier will,
To take the indisposed and sickly fit
For the sound man.” (Act 2, Scene 4)

Now he is more tolerant of Goneril as well:

“I’ll not chide thee;
Let shame come when it will, I do not call it:
I do not bid the thunder-bearer shoot,
Nor tell tales of thee to high-judging Jove:
Mend when thou canst; be better at thy leisure:
I can be patient; I can stay with Regan,
I and my hundred knights.” (Act 2, Scene 4)

On the heath, once he declares that “his wits have begun to turn,” he expresses concern for the fool and not himself, while both are experiencing the same hard weather:

“Poor fool and knave, I have one part in my heart
That’s sorry yet for thee.” (Act 3, Scene 2)

Offered shelter, he now insists that others take precedence:

“In, boy; go first.
You houseless poverty,―
Nay, get thee in.
I’ll pray, and then I’ll sleep.
... Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these?
O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this!
Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.” (Act 3, Scene 4)

Note too with newfound kindness the parallel call for justice. Having experienced unkindness, he has become kind. Having experienced injustice, he now craves justice for all. With his suffering in the play, Lear has grown spiritually.

In the same way, Gloucester, formerly insensitive to the feelings of Edmund, once blinded and turned out, is now more concerned about a farmer offering him help than about himself:

“Away, get thee away; good friend, be gone:
Thy comforts can do me no good at all;
Thee they may hurt.” (Act 4, Scene 1)

As we see, with this newfound sympathy comes a parallel passion for justice. Just as Hamlet felt no remorse over killing Polonius, Rosencrantz, or Guildenstern, abused Edgar feels none over killing Oswald. Oswald, after all, was a villain, slain while attempting murder.

“He’s dead; I am only sorry
He had no other death’s-man.” (Act 4, Scene 6)

Lear plainly develops this craving for cosmic justice:

“Let the great gods,
That keep this dreadful pother o’er our heads,
Find out their enemies now. Tremble, thou wretch,
That hast within thee undivulged crimes,
Unwhipp’d of justice: hide thee, thou bloody hand;
Thou perjured, and thou simular man of virtue
That art incestuous: caitiff, to pieces shake,
That under covert and convenient seeming
Hast practised on man’s life: close pent-up guilts,
Rive your concealing continents, and cry
These dreadful summoners grace.” (Act 3, Scene 2)

And so does Gloucester. He appeals to heaven:

“Let the superfluous and lust-dieted man,
That slaves your ordinance, that will not see
Because he doth not feel, feel your power quickly;
So distribution should undo excess,
And each man have enough.” (Act 4, Scene 1)

As with Oedipus, Dymphna, and Hamlet, this very commitment to morality and justice is a cause of the downfall of the abused: they are martyrs. This is most obviously true for Cordelia: her honesty is the crime that condemns her. Gloucester meets disaster because he tries to help Lear, showing kindness. Lear does not come to harm because of the harm he does to Cordelia, but for the good he does to Goneril and Regan. Edmund attests that Edgar suffers because he is too trusting.

5. There seems to be a motif of exile.

Lear is forcibly exiled from the castle onto the heath. He heads south, as if by instinct, for Dover and the nearest border.

Gloucester is cast out in the same way. He strikes out then in the same direction.

Cordelia enters exile at the beginning of the play. Her exile is the most complete and extreme; and, it seems, perhaps for this reason, the most successful (excluding Edgar) at preventing mental illness.

Edgar too is exiled from his home, obliged to live in disguise on the roads; a permanent state of wandering. In his case, it is a kind of internal exile.

But he too heads for Dover.

6. The child has some special ability to intercede with the spiritual realm.

As soon as he is thrown out by Goneril, Lear appeals to heaven. This reveals an innate assumption that the spirit world—even the pagan spirit world known to Lear—will enforce justice. For Christians, the certainty that God is just produces this faith. But the conviction does not seem limited to ethical monotheists. The Hindu or Buddhist concept of karma is a similar guarantee.

So is the pagan Greek doctrine of hubris. This, according to Aristotle, is the core idea behind the tragic genre. It is the power producing all tragedy.

We often think of hubris as a synonym for “pride.” It is not. It is much closer to a synonym for “narcissism” as this is diagnosed by psychiatry. In Athenian law, “hubris” was an act designed to harm or humiliate another, done not out of anger, but for pleasure. This is virtually definitive of abuse. Aristotle says that hubris “consists in causing injury or annoyance whereby the sufferer is disgraced, not to obtain any other advantage for oneself besides the performance of the act, but for one’s own pleasure.... The cause of the pleasure felt by those who insult is the idea that, in ill-treating others, they are more fully showing superiority.”[x]

Aristotle gives us an analysis of abuse and why it occurs. The root of hubris is self-love; this is most clearly demonstrated in being abusive.

This self-love was considered an offense against the gods. It makes sense: at its core, narcissism is setting one’s self up as one’s god. The real gods would naturally exact vengeance for it.

The concept of cosmic justice, therefore, seems universal.

And so Lear’s appeal to heaven. The spirit world is now on his side:

“Hear, nature, hear! dear goddess, hear!
Suspend thy purpose, if thou didst intend
To make this creature fruitful!
Into her womb convey sterility;
Dry up in her the organs of increase;
And from her derogate body never spring
A babe to honour her! If she must teem,
Create her child of spleen: that it may live,
To be a thwart disnatur’d torment to her!
Let it stamp wrinkles in her brow of youth;
With cadent tears fret channels in her cheeks;
Turn all her mother’s pains, and benefits,
To laughter and contempt...” (Act 1, Scene 4).
Lear and Cordelia


As his sufferings increase, he feels closer to blessedness. Being led away to prison, he says

“Upon such sacrifices, my Cordelia,
The gods themselves throw incense.” (Act 5, Scene 3)

As with Hamlet and Oedipus, there is a suggestion that the sacrifice of the abused brings benefits to the larger society. Albany describes the rule of Lear’s daughters as oppressive not just to Lear and Gloucester, but to all of Britain. It follows that the actions of Lear, Cordelia, Gloucester and Edgar in fighting it are heroic.

“The king is come to his daughter,
With others whom the rigor of our state
Forced to cry out. Where I could not be honest,
I never yet was valiant: for this business,
It toucheth us, as France invades our land,
Not bolds the king, with others, whom, I fear,
Most just and heavy causes make oppose.” (Act 5, Scene 1)

7. Analysis—knowing what went on in one’s childhood—is not a cure.


Gloucester drops dead on hearing the truth of things. Edgar reports:


“Not sure, though hoping, of this good success,
I ask’d his blessing, and from first to last
Told him my pilgrimage: but his flaw’d heart,
Alack, too weak the conflict to support!
‘Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief,
Burst smilingly.” (Act 5, Scene 3)

The doctor advises that Lear should not be told what is really going on:

“Be comforted, good madam: the great rage,
You see, is kill’d in him: and yet it is danger
To make him even o’er the time he has lost.” (Act 4, Scene 7).

Even Kent seems to go temporarily mad on recounting his experiences:

“He fastened on my neck, and bellow’d out
As he’ld burst heaven; threw him on my father;
Told the most piteous tale of Lear and him
That ever ear received: which in recounting
His grief grew puissant and the strings of life
Began to crack: twice then the trumpets sounded,
And there I left him tranced.” (Act 5, Scene 3)

This does not sound promising for the basic premise of analysis.

Possibly, when Freudian analysis does alleviate the symptoms of mental illness, it works not because it uncovers its true cause, but because it substitutes for it a comforting alibi, in the Oedipus Complex. This opiate covers the pain, at least temporarily, enough to keep the analysand coming back for another dose.


8. The child, even though abused, does not turn on the parent.



Cordelia is the perfect example of this. Despite everything Lear expects and fears, it is she, the child who was rejected, who proves loyal.

So too with Edgar.

Goneril and Regan are perfectly selfish. But Cordelia cares more for her father than herself:

“For thee, oppressed king, am I cast down;
Myself could else out-frown false fortune’s frown.” (Act 5, Scene 3).

To prove this, she has, after all, gone to war in his behalf.

Lear Mourns Cordelia's Death


Edgar, put in a position where he might take any revenge he likes on the father who wanted to kill him, instead does everything he can in his father’s interest, including battling Oswald to the death.

This may surprise many, as it does Lear. But it stands to reason. The abused child is in effect raised from first consciousness to always put the interests of others before their own, and in particular to consider the interests of their parent paramount. Why would they not have internalized this message? Despite just deserts, the abused child is probably the least likely to turn on the parent.

An objection may be raised here that it is unclear Cordelia and Edgar have been systematically abused. In the events we witness on the stage, Cordelia and Edgar are certainly abused children. But were they abused before this point? They seem to be shown as having been favoured: Edmund makes much of Edgar being the legitimate son; both France and Lear say Cordelia has previously been Lear’s favourite.

Lear says “I loved her most.” The King of France says that Cordelia

“even but now was your best object,
The argument of your praise, balm of your age,
Most best, most dearest.” (Act 1, Scene 1)

As to Edgar, however, we have Edmund’s admission that he was not preferred. We see Edgar easily suspected and abused; while everything Edmund says is taken at face value. It is only logical to assume this is not for the first time. How could it be?

As for Cordelia, what looked like being favoured may be simply the option of possessing the exceptional child instead of killing her—King Damon’s preference. The narcissist has two possible responses to the exceptional child: greed or envy. Greed is more likely towards a child of the opposite sex, until or unless the option of possession is ruled out, usually at puberty or marriage. And so it appears with Cordelia. Greed then turns to envy, and the desire to eliminate, when thwarted. A child may up to that point seem pampered, yet only be loved as a possession. A sports car might be similarly pampered; a farmer might similarly fatten a lamb for the slaughter. In exchange for this supposed favouritism, Lear seems to demand ownership. Everything came with a debit note attached. Being owned and controlled, up to this point, might have meant nice dresses, but would not have been fun.

Let us not move on without making another point, too often, I think, missed by modern psychiatry. A tendency to complain about one’s parents is not a clear indication that one has been abused. A narcissist is in the business of blaming others. If they cannot blame their children, they are naturally just as happy blaming their parents. An abused child, by contrast, will find it difficult to blame anyone but themselves, and especially difficult to blame their parents. Oedipus could not bring himself to do it. This is not a situation in which one can take the “victim’s” word.

At the same time, this reticence to blame the parents may explain why the Oedipus Complex seemed satisfying to many of Freud’s patients, assuming it did. It avoids blaming the parents; this seems to be its primary purpose. The victim can take all the responsibility on themself, on their “subconscious,” and pretend to themselves that the emotional betrayal never happened. Their parents were right all along; the fault was theirs! They are flawed in their essence. They are mentally ill. The fundamental world view on which they grew up is preserved. At least temporarily, a mental peace is restored, and the betrayal not felt.

Over the long term, however, this has to be destructive rather than helpful. Note the visceral demand of the abused for honesty, truth, and justice. Offering such a gaslighting on top of gaslighting violates this, and so must provoke a worse reaction once the ruse is seen through. The drug would not be worth the hangover.

9. Mental illness may be a rational survival strategy

If madness is an escape from suffering, an analysis genuinely seeking the truth of affairs and seeking to end the delusions or hallucinations, would, without some skillful techniques, most probably bring the suffering back…

Lear stays out in the storm because, he says:

“This tempest will not give me leave to ponder
On things would hurt me more.” (Act 3, Scene 4)

If this is right, it is not just a true and straightforward analysis that is harmful to the mentally ill; the same would hold for “anti-psychotic” medicines. The hallucinations are, Shakespeare suggests, like a scab over a wound. Such chemical solutions, it seems, if all they do is prevent hallucinations, just rip the scab off again to expose the underlying injury to the open air, allowing it to fester to gangrene.

There may be other benefits to psychosis. By feigning madness, Edgar doesn’t just avoid the symptoms of depression felt by Lear and Gloucester. He avoids the death warrant that targets him, and further abuse in general. As one observer remarks,

“His roguish madness
Allows itself to any thing.” (Act 3, Scene 7)

It may be the same for the schizophrenic. If you are being targeted for abuse within the family, or indeed within society, being visibly crazy may take the pressure off. You are now no longer a threat or a possible rival to the narcissists. You are just old pitiful Mad Tom.

The Fool: Visconti

It may also for other reasons be wrong here to think in terms of a “cure” for mental illness. If emotional betrayal is the underlying issue, and what we call “mental illness” only a symptom, does it make sense to speak of “curing” it?

Hazlitt, writing in 1817, scoffs at the previous century’s attempts to give King Lear a happy ending. This, he feels, is just not credible. “As if the living martyrdom that Lear had gone through,―the flaying of his feelings alive, did not make a fair dismissal from the stage of life the only decorous thing for him…. As if the childish pleasure of getting his gilt robes and sceptre again could tempt him to act over again his misused station.”

If Hazlitt is right, the same must apply to all those who are “mentally ill” from abuse. Curing those symptoms does not seem to be the point. Get rid of the suicidal thoughts and the panic attacks, get rid of the hallucinations and delusions, and the injustice remains, will remain until death, and cannot really be remedied. Whatever else might happen, that happy childhood and supportive family others knew can never be known. That is an incomparable loss.

Narcissistic personalities have little incentive to reform. Narcissism may be called a mental illness, but most often, the person who has it does not suffer: everybody else around them does. Accordingly, they have zero incentive to change. Less than zero: dispensing with the narcissism will oblige them to confront their own guilt, which may be huge.

But even if they do repent, they are unlikely to be able to repair or to compensate for the damage they have done. King Lear shows two narcissists, Edmund and Oswald, repenting at the moment of death. But by this point, there is little they can do. Their deathbed confessions help no one.

It may be misguided, then, to speak of any cure other than Lear’s appeal to heaven; and to hopes of an afterlife.

At the same time, however, are there things that might be done to reduce the present suffering?

The doctor in Lear prescribes “repose”:

“There is means, madam:
Our foster-nurse of nature is repose,
The which he lacks” (Act 3, Scene 4).

This meshes with the theme of exile: first, get away from the cause of the trauma. Then avoid all further stress for a time to allow for healing. Cordelia, so far as we can see, seems to deal with her experience of emotional betrayal well by starting a new life in far-off France.

Solitude and repose is also Lear’s instinct. Approached by Kent soon after he realizes that his wits are going, he responds, “Let me alone” (Act 3, Scene 4). He is not sad to be sent to prison:

“No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.” (Act 5, Scene 3)

This is a monastic vision.

Edgar, having experienced a similar betrayal, feigns madness as Tom o’Bedlam; as Hamlet feigns madness in that play.

This, perhaps, is the play’s most interesting proposition. The obvious reason, for both Edgar and Hamlet, is practical: it protects them from being killed or targeted for further abuse. But it also seems to insulate Edgar from the emotional agonies experienced, under similar blows, by Lear or Gloucester.

In pretending madness, Edgar is, literally, an actor. Shakespeare was an actor; this parallel was doubtless meaningful to him. Is he suggesting that acting, pretending to be someone else, the arts, the play, or play-acting, are a useful response to abuse, and a possible protection from the pains of melancholy or of madness?

He seems to be doing exactly that. Edgar in disguise involves Gloucester too in a bit of performance, a bit of imaginative art, pretending he has seen him fall from the Cliffs of Dover. He does this explicitly to shake him of suicidal thoughts.

“Why I do trifle thus with his despair
Is done to cure it.”

And it works. Gloucester says,

“I do remember now: henceforth I’ll bear
Affliction till it do cry out itself
‘Enough, enough,’ and die.” (Act 4, Scene 6)

Art in general, then, perhaps, and this play in particular, is apt and meant to soothe the pains of emotional abuse, for those who are abused; of injustice, for those who have known injustice; of emotional betrayal, for those who have been emotionally betrayed. Acting, becoming wrapped up in watching a play, or participating in or appreciating any other of the arts, after all, draws us away from our own lives and our own sufferings, for a time. It takes us into a different world; a sort of internal exile; and a world in which we need not play for keeps. One can understand both why this would soothe the anguish of depression, and why this would substitute for the hallucinations of the mad.

In the play, it is Edgar, the artist, who most fully overcomes the effects of abuse, if at the cost of a diet of frogs. Lear, Cordelia, and Gloucester all lie dead at the curtain. Edgar inherits the earth.

There is an odd, almost uncanny, similarity between the stories of St. Dymphna and King Lear. When Dymphna flees her father’s court, two characters stand by her: the old priest, Father Gerebernus, and the court fool. When Lear is turned out into the elements, two characters stand by him—and one of them, again, is the court fool.

Court fools, we have noted, were professional performers: comics, jugglers, actors, and musicians. We have suggested that Dymphna’s fool might therefore represent the artist and the arts, as one vital source of support for the depressed and mentally ill.

This is plainly true with the figure of the fool in Lear. He is no fool in the natural sense. He is a professional comic.

It is often noted that the fool disappears in Act 3 of King Lear; what happened to him?

Hazlitt suggests this is because the fool and Edgar are essentially the same character: “The character is dropped in the third act to make room for the entrance of Edgar as Mad Tom.” Both are artists; both are feigning madness, although with the fool this is purely an artistic convention. The implied identity cements the message that Edgar is the paradigm of the artist. Edgar = fool = performer, artist.

Is Kent, then, as the second ally in exile, representative of religion? Is he cognate to Father Gerebernus in the Dymphna legend?

The Kent character cannot be a priest, like Gerebernus. Lear lived before Christ. Nevertheless, there are clues that Kent is a priest after the order of Melchizedek. While everyone else in the play appeals to “the gods,” he alone seems to be a monotheist:

“Good king, that must approve the common saw,
Thou out of heaven’s benediction comest
To the warm sun!
Approach, thou beacon to this under globe,
That by thy comfortable beams I may
Peruse this letter!” (Act 2, Scene 2)

As if an exorcist, and reminiscent of the apostles in the New Testament, he does not fear demons, and casts them out:

“Fool:
Come not in here, nuncle, here’s a spirit
Help me, help me!
Kent:
Give me thy hand. Who’s there?
Fool:
A spirit, a spirit: he says his name’s poor Tom.
Kent:
What art thou that dost grumble there i’ the straw?
Come forth.” (Act 3, Scene 4)
It may be significant, too, that Kent is the county of Canterbury, historic seat of Christianity in England.

At the end of the play, offered half the kingdom, Kent declines:

“I have a journey, sir, shortly to go;
My master calls me, I must not say no.” (Act 5, Scene 3)

His king is dead. Who else could be his master, but the one true God? And the latter’s kingdom, he seems to imply, is not of this world.

And so, by the final curtain, there are two viable survival strategies for the abused: religion and the arts.


Footnotes:


[i] Brown, Dennis (2001). "King Lear: The Lost Leader; Group Disintegration, Transformation and Suspended Reconsolidation". Critical Survey. Berghahn Books. 13 (3): 19–39.


[ii] Freud, “The Theme of the Three Caskets,” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XII (1911-1913), p. p. 291


[iii]ibid., p. 300.


[iv]ibid, p., 300.


[v]ibid., p. 294.


[vi]ibid., p. 300.


[vii]Thompson and Giles, trans. Book 2, Chapter 11.


[viii]Ernest Jones, The Life and Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 3 (New York, 1957), pp. 457-58.


[ix]Hazlitt, Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays, London: Hunter and Ollier, 1817


[x]Rhetoric 1378b; Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vol. 22, trans. J. H. Freese. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press; William Heinemann Ltd. 1926.