Wednesday, November 07, 2018

'Labor to Abolish Their Own Vocations'

Even dedicated readers tell horror stories about teachers who tried their damnedest to sour them on literature. How many future readers have been strangled in the cradle? Or at least had a writer, book or era ruined? In my case it was Julius Caesar, and the culprit was my eight-grade English teacher. She turned reading Shakespeare into an exercise in vivisection. To this day, the play is slightly tainted, like old meat. The fault is not Shakespeare’s but my teacher’s and mine. I read it again mostly out of obligation and for the occasional tasty turn of phrase. In his chapter devoted to Julius Caesar in Lectures on Shakespeare (ed. Arthur Kirsch, by Princeton University Press, 2000), W.H. Auden writes:

“A teacher must be a clown and arouse in his pupils a love of knowledge—the more love there is in the pupil, the less work for the teacher—he mustn’t annoy or discourage the pupil.”

The volume collects the talks Auden gave between October 1946 and May 1947 at the New School for Social Research in New York City. Auden’s gloss on the plays is learned and chatty, never stuffy. In his hands, Julius Caesar is not a specimen to dissect. In another lecture, Auden says, “Shakespeare never takes himself too seriously.” He notices that Julius Caesar is “unique for a plain, direct, bleak, public style of rhetoric,” and that the characters often speak in monosyllables. Auden has been reading Kierkegaard. It’s a play for his historical period, and ours:

Julius Caesar has great relevance to our time, though it is gloomier, because it is about a society that is doomed. Octavius only succeeded in giving Roman society a 400-year reprieve. Our society is not doomed, but in such immense danger that the relevance is great. It was a society doomed not by the evil passions of selfish individuals, because such passions always exist, but by an intellectual and spiritual failure of nerve that made the society incapable of coping with its situation."

Our cowardice is self-imposed. We created this mess and each day repudiate the tools that might remedy it. Later in the same paragraph, Auden lays out the responses to a similar cultural/political cul-de-sac as embodied by characters in Julius Caesar:

“The play presents three political responses to this failure. The crowd-master, the man of destiny, Caesar. The man who temporarily rides the storm, Antony. And Caesar’s real successor, the man who is to establish Roman order for a time, Octavius. Brutus, who keeps himself independent, is the detached and philosophical individual.”

Playing the parlor game of assigning public figures to each of the roles is irresistible. At least privately, most of us, for self-flattering reasons, identify most with Brutus. Auden writes: “Hamlet knows he’s in despair, but Brutus and other characters in Julius Caesar don’t know. In The Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard emphasizes that unconscious despair is the most extreme form of despair . . .” And this:

“The love of power in a good politician—one whom one respects—is subservient to his zeal for a just society. Power is uppermost for a bad politician, a demagogue. He is like a writer who writes because he wants to be famous, rather than because he wants to write well. A good politician and a good teacher labor to abolish their own vocations.”

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