Posts Tagged 'jacques barzun'

Shakespearean knots.

Shakespeare could be immoderately knotty.
It’s odd: he must’ve thought in knots a lot.
His thought can be unknotted – but could not he
Have sought a little less to knot his thought?

Look, I’m the first to admit that I’m lazy and not too bright. But I’m also the kind of person who reads Shakespeare for fun, and there aren’t too many of us around these days – so please, all you brainy and diligent Shakespeare nerds, indulge my unsophisticated complaint.

It’s about the knots.

Is there a technical term for them? In his book From Dawn To Decadence the French-born American scholar Jacques Barzun admitted to being less than wholly enthusiastic about Shakespeare because he too often had trouble keeping up with “the involutions of the thought” – a phrase that’s always stuck with me. Consulting the index, I see that the passage in question is actually discussing Racine:

The unprepared listener grasps the sense of the action but – as often in Shakespeare – the involutions of the thought are too fine to seize at the speed of their delivery.

Well, I haven’t read Racine. But in Shakespeare’s case, I think of them not as fancy Latinate involutions but as homely old Anglo-Saxon knots.

Every play has them. I happened to be revisiting King John recently – I remembered next to nothing of the plot, but it came back to me as I read. The biggest challenge in the early scenes, as with so much Shakespeare, is figuring out who’s related to whom. That must have been easier for Elizabethan audiences, who were attentive to the complications of royal bloodlines, and were used to nobles being referred to miscellaneously by title, house, epithet, and Christian name.

But a knowledge of the vastly ramified Plantagenet family tree is not necessary to follow King John. The story unwinds smoothly until Act II, Scene I, where Constance, the mother of young Arthur – the rightful king, as she believes, of England – hurls these curses at her mother-in-law Elinor – Arthur’s grandmother – who supports the claim of Arthur’s usurping uncle John:

I have but this to say,
That he [Arthur] is not only plagued for her [Elinor’s] sin,
But God hath made her sin and her the plague
On this removed issue, plague for her
And with her plague; her sin his injury,
Her injury the beadle to her sin,
All punish’d in the person of this child,
And all for her; a plague upon her!

See: a knot. Usually I can keep up with Shakespeare at a reading pace, with occasional delays to double back and reconnect a distantly severed subject and predicate, or to put back in order some poetically inverted adjective and noun; but a knot like this I might have to read five or ten times just to extract the basic meaning. In all honesty, I’m still not sure what “plague for her / And with her plague” means.

Elsewhere in From Dawn to Decadence Barzun lists the “tenable objections” to Shakespeare’s genius, including:

[T]he dull passages, including the puns, often obscene and prolonged; the inflated sentiments, the ludicrous images, the insoluble syntax, the contradictory details, the theatrically awkward turns, and the sheer excess where terseness or silence would be best.

He means “insoluble” in the sense of “unsolvable”, but the other meaning works too, if you picture Shakespeare’s knots as tightly compacted lumps of matter that refuse to soften up no matter how long you soak ’em.

Returning to the play, the next knot comes in Act III, Scene I, once again courtesy of Constance. She’s trying to convince the French king to do his religious duty, abandon his alliance with the excommunicated John, and switch his support to Arthur. She’s accused of arguing “not from her faith / But from her need.” She replies:

O, if thou grant my need,
Which only lives but by the death of faith,
That need must needs infer this principle,
That faith would live again by death of need.
O then, tread down my need, and faith mounts up;
Keep my need up, and faith is trodden down!

As Professor Barzun said, what characterizes passages like these is involution – ideas looping around on themselves like interlocking ouroboroses. They remind me of the logical puzzles known as sorites [1] presented by Lewis Carroll in his book Symbolic Logic:

(1) No one takes in the Times, unless he is well-educated;
(2) No hedge-hogs can read;
(3) Those who cannot read are not well-educated.

Conclusion: No hedge-hog takes in the Times.

That’s an easy one. When the propositions are multiplied, a sorites can quickly grow too cumbrous to be parsed on the fly:

(1) All the dated letters in this room are written on blue paper;
(2) None of them are in black ink, except those that are written in the third person;
(3) I have not filed any of them that I can read;
(4) None of them, that are written on one sheet, are undated;
(5) All of them, that are not crossed, are in black ink;
(6) All of them, written by Brown, begin with “Dear Sir”;
(7) All of them, written on blue paper, are filed;
(8) None of them, written on more than one sheet, are crossed;
(9) None of them, that begin with “Dear Sir”, are written in the third person.

With a little patience, these propositions can be reduced to pairs of eliminands, which cancel out, leaving the two retinands “letters written by Brown” and “letters that I cannot read”, comprising the conclusion: “I cannot read any of Brown’s letters.”

[Full disclosure: Despite Carroll’s jaunty assertion that none of the exercises in Symbolic Logic should be “beyond the grasp of an intelligent child of (say) twelve or fourteen years of age”, I haven’t attempted them myself. I’m a lot dimmer than a well-brought-up 19th century English schoolboy.]

Coincidentally, just as Shakespeare reminded me of Carroll’s sorites, Carroll had Shakespeare on his mind while composing them:

(1) All writers, who understand human nature, are clever;
(2) No one is a true poet unless he can stir the hearts of men;
(3) Shakespeare wrote “Hamlet”;
(4) No writer, who does not understand human nature, can stir the hearts of men;
(5) None but a true poet could have written “Hamlet”.

Conclusion: Shakespeare was clever. Too blasted clever, one sometimes grumbles…


In Act III, Scene I, of King John, shortly after Constance’s speech about faith, Cardinal Pandulph makes his own religious appeal to the French king, who is torn between the oath he recently swore to King John and his loyalty to the church. Pandulph unfurls this string of small knots:

O, let thy vow
First made to heaven, first be to heaven perform’d,
That is, to be the champion of our church!
What since thou sworest is sworn against thyself
And may not be performed by thyself,
For that which thou hast sworn to do amiss
Is not amiss when it is truly done,
And being not done, where doing tends to ill,
The truth is then most done not doing it:
The better act of purposes mistook
Is to mistake again; though indirect,
Yet indirection thereby grows direct,
And falsehood falsehood cures, as fire cools fire
Within the scorched veins of one new-burn’d. [2]

Did Shakespeare trust that contemporary theatre-goers could follow this display of Jesuitical rope-trickery? Or, like a Hollywood screenwriter throwing masses of jargon into his space opera script to set an atmosphere of scientific authenticity, was he content that the knots should plink melodiously off his audiences’ skulls, communicating nothing but “ah, this Cardinal fella’s real smart”?

I recall reading Henry V for the first time and nodding off at the Archbishop of Canterbury’s eye-glazing explanation in Act I, Scene II, of Henry’s claim to the French throne. Then I saw Olivier’s film of the play, where the scene is played for comedy, with Canterbury shuffling through stacks of paper, losing his place, being assisted by his flustered deputy, seeming to wind down only to wind back up again, and so on. It culminates with Canterbury on his knees amid drifts of fallen parchment, declaring to the bemused noblemen that Henry’s claim is “as clear as is the summer’s sun.” Which I suspect, though I can’t be sure, Shakespeare intended as a punchline.

Have the play’s interpreters always leavened this scene with buffoonery? Or was the buffoonery a necessary adjustment for modern audiences, who are less engrossed than their ancestors by genealogical disquisition? Anthony Brennan, in his Critical Introduction to the play, argues that Canterbury was meant to be played straight:

Given the extended arguments throughout Shakespeare’s whole cycle of history plays as successive figures try to legitimise their claims to the crown and to dispute that of others, it seems inherently unlikely that the Elizabethan audience regarded such a huge speech as laughter-fodder. [3]

(For his Henry, filmed a half-century after Olivier’s, Kenneth Branagh opted for the stodgier solution of forgoing the comedy, but compressing the speech to a quarter of its length.)

As with Canterbury’s evolution into a figure of comedy, I can imagine Pandulph being performed as a suave word-spinner, dazzling the blunt-witted nobles (who broadly mime their incomprehension) into acquiescence. But the fact that Constance is as nimble a spinner as Pandulph makes me wonder whether Shakespearean audiences, raised in a more verbal culture, were simply more adept at uncoiling knotty rhetoric.


1. Sing. sorites [pron. so-righties], pl. sorites or (Carroll’s preference) soriteses; from the Greek for heap; not to be confused with the sorites paradox.

2. “…as fire cools fire / Within the scorched veins of one new-burn’d.” Apparently in Shakespeare’s time medical orthodoxy held that burns should be treated by the application of heat:

Fernelius asserted that fire was its own antidote and should be applied to the burned part to drive it out which abates the pain. Ambrose Pare similarly called for the burned part to be held near a flame or live coal to draw out the igneous particles in the tissues.

3. I was pointed to this quote by Anthony Boyd-Williams’s 2002 master’s thesis, “I Am Left Out – A Study of Selected Clerical Characters in Shakespeare’s History Plays”, which contains meaty chapters on Pandulph and Canterbury, with detailed scene-by-scene notes on several high-profile filmed and theatrical performances of King John and Henry V, focussing on the portrayals of these characters.

In Robert Heinlein’s 1980 novel The Number of the Beast – discussed in my essay on Heinlein’s Crazy Years – the dimension-hopping heroes bump into Lewis Carroll and trade sorites to pass the time.


From Dawn To Decadence (Jacques Barzun).

jacques barzun from dawn to decadence

Its title makes Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn To Decadence a suspense story. We know the “500 Years of Western Cultural Life” that the subtitle describes will end in decadence; what we don’t know is exactly what Barzun means by the word. Are we in for another rant by a disillusioned nonagenarian about badly-dressed teenagers who spit in public?

Sorry to give away the ending, but the answer is: Yes.

When the rant arrives, it comes as a bit of a surprise. In the prologue, Barzun has defined decadence in non-cranky terms:

All that is meant by Decadence is “falling off”. It implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary, it is a very active time, full of deep concerns, but peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear lines of advance. The loss it faces is that of Possibility. The forms of art as of life seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through.

This is a fair description of our time. And through the first 750 or so pages of the tome – covering roughly the Protestant Reformation to the Second World War – the author exhibits an openness to each innovation that seems to promise a fair and measured present-day outlook.

The thing is, I agree with Barzun’s description of our age as “decadent” – as he defined it above. I think it’s pretty obvious that our forms of art are exhausted. As a guy who in his more grandiose moments has fancied himself an “artist”, I sincerely hope that someone out there is working to free us from the drain-spiralling recursiveness of post- and post-post-modernism (whatever those concepts actually mean) – cos I for one haven’t got any fresh ideas.

I think Barzun’s error is that he snatches too readily at evidence of decadence in our daily lives. For instance, he describes in his chapter on “Demotic Life and Times” (i.e., the present day):

[T]he public schools were also a regular setting for violent acts. Armed guards patrolled the corridors to keep the peace among the pupils; teachers were assaulted to the point where the danger became an expected risk to the profession…From their early teens, pupils carried guns, assaulted each other, and on occasion committed little massacres by shooting into a group at random with a rapid-fire weapon.

This is all technically true, but I doubt that in a few decades the average adult will look back on his elementary school days as the anarchy of gunplay and teacher-beatings that this paragraph describes. For the most part this kind of daily violence has been restricted to poor districts that, in the United States, at the time of Barzun’s writing (the late ’90s), were already beginning to recover from an epidemic of crack- and gang-fuelled self-destructiveness. And after all, as this book makes clear, mass public education and the welfare state are still fairly new phenomena; it’s going to take us a while to get the formula down. Mightn’t lousy schools merely be the result of short-sighted, ill-advised policy choices, of the kind that have led nations into much worse violence in centuries past, rather than a symptom of uniquely modern cultural malaise?

Barzun goes on:

[C]hildren found at home no encouragement to schooling, no instruction in simple manners, no inkling of the moral sense. Some of the waifs bred in that way were those who took to drugs, became thieves before their teens, and committed the conscienceless crimes falsely called mindless. They formed gangs, boys and girls together, with able leaders and strict rules. It was they, not prime ministers, who reinvented government. And when they joined to it so-called Satanism, they rediscovered ritual if not religion.

Hey you Satanic gangs, get off my lawn!

Maybe by taking these intemperate passages out of context, I’m doing Barzun a disservice. Most of the examples he provides are more convincing than those above, and some of his overreach can be excused on the grounds that the dude was ninety-three years old when he wrote the book. I shudder to contemplate what a sour old fuddy-duddy I’ll be when I reach that age.

Barzun isn’t all fuddy-duddy. Yes, he seems weirdly incensed by the United States’ toleration of flag-burning: the subject comes up three different times. But he also musters a strong defense of that conservative bugaboo, relativism. While he isn’t in the least bit interested in modern popular music, he evinces no overt distaste in his passing discussion of jazz. And he goes out of his way to give women thinkers and writers their due, to the extent that it sometimes seems like mere tokenism: a section on 19C female travel writers is basically a list of funny, forgotten British names (Lady Florence Dixie, Mrs. R.H. Tyacke, The Hon. Impulsia Gushington, and so on).

His final chapter anticipates the couple hundred years to come: the population will split into a ruling technocratic elite and a larger semi-literate lumpen class who let drop their democratic responsibilities through indifference; they will live in a world overseen loosely from Brussels and Washington but really broken up into quasi-sovereign regions run by mutually hostile corporations. It’s all pretty familiar from recent science-fiction: a bit of Philip K. Dick, a bit of cyberpunk, a bit of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. Compared to those dystopias it actually sounds pretty okay.

Here once again is my more pessimistic prognosis for the next few centuries: the reflexive ironists who make up my emancipated, individualistic cohort having better things to do with their time than make babies, we will increasingly be outnumbered by old-fashioned True Believers – Muslims or Hindus or Mormons or Christians of various stripes – who breed because they think it’s their duty. In a few generations there won’t be enough of us left to keep the True Believers from each other’s throats. Each sect being convinced of the unerringness of their message, they will make war on one another until one of them, doesn’t matter who, comes out on top. Or maybe after a few decades they’ll get smart and come to some kind of accommodation. What kind of culture the survivors will impose, I have no idea. I’ll be long dead by then. Perhaps I’ll have uploaded my consciousness into a computer and the digital me will watch sadly as the barbarians have their day.

Likely something good will come of it eventually. When that flowering emerges, its ironists and individualists can look back to Barzun’s book for a sense of how things might play out.


I was heartened to come across these lines in a chapter on French drama:

These same elements are today what makes Racine, for one, hard to follow on the stage. The unprepared listener grasps the sense of the action but – as often in Shakespeare – the involutions of the thought are too fine to seize at the speed of their delivery.

That’s about right. Awful pretty it sounds, but when a couple characters in Shakespeare are bouncing lines off one another, sometimes you’re left in the dust, forced to keep track by watching who’s stabbing who. Of course the solution is to know the plays in advance. But it is my shame to admit that I’m still unfamiliar with a lot of the big ones: Lear and The Tempest and the Henry plays, most egregiously. I mean to catch up, but there’s always something more pressing for me to read.

I’m happy when someone smarter than me confesses that watching or reading Shakespeare is occasionally less than an unalloyed pleasure. In an earlier chapter Barzun has explained how in Shakespeare’s own day he was considered inferior to his contemporary Ben Jonson, and he excerpts some of the passages which Jonson might have been referring to when he wished Shakespeare had “blotted a thousand lines”. I wouldn’t mind if he’d blotted twice that many.


Influenced by the columnist Mark Steyn and by Mike Judge’s film Idiocracy, I developed my prediction for the decline of civilisation first here: “I think women should give up breeding altogether and we should grow our babies in bottles”

…and then here: “Of course, baleful predictions about the end of the world as we know it usually turn out to be wrong by approximately one hundred percent”

…and most recently here: “I always thought I was immune to end-of-the-world despair because, unlike the Utopianists, I’m not eager for the apocalypse at all. I rather like things the way they are”.

Update, July 26, 2020: Added cover image and linked to Bibliography page.

Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

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