Friday, February 16, 2007

I am not what I am - unMoored from Above

One of the vilest characters in all of Western Literature is Iago from Shakespeare’s Othello, I think he is also the one we should be most careful of all to learn from. Othello is the story of a solid and good man, a Moorish commander in the employ of Venice to help defend it from the Turks, and how he is undone – defeated not in physical war, but through Spiritual warfare.

As the play opens, we find that Desdemona, the fair daughter of a Venetian senator is in love with Othello, and he with her. Othello has just filled an opening in his leadership ranks with a rear line officer named Michael Cassio, a Florentine; passing over an experienced battle tested officer, Iago, who is Othello's trusted advisor.

Iago is ostensibly offended that he has not been named to the leadership post himself, and he determines to set all against all in order to destroy Othello - at any cost.

Iago sums up his position in Act I, Scene I, speaking to Roderigo (who also has feelings for Desdemona, and whom Iago will also manipulate towards his own ends).

For, sir,
It is as sure as you are Roderigo,
Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago.
In following him, I follow but myself;
Heaven is my judge, not I for love and duty,
But seeming so, for my peculiar end.
For when my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In complement extern, 'tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at: I am not what I am.

Iago is saying that if he had the choice, he would not be himself, and behaves as if he weren't - he will pretend otherwise for the moment, but when the time comes he will make plain his intents, and appearances be damned. In the Old Testament, God identifies himself to Moses as "I Am that I Am", and with "I am not what I am" Shakespeare has Iago explicitly and purposefully put himself in opposition to that.

We initially think Iago’s motives 'soundly' of envious revenge at being passed over, but as the play progresses, he allows other motives to flow from his lips as the situation suits, so that we know not which one, if any at all, are his true (true? does it apply to such a one?) motives for destroying the Soul of Othello; and that is precisely his intent. Not to backstab him, or merely to have him think himself a cuckold, but to destroy his Soul, and drip by drip of his poisonous tongue Iago accomplishes this, so that Othello, a man of solid character, upright intent, honorable and virtuous as they come, is removed from himself using his strengths and his values, by way of his trust in his own judgment.

Othello, unassailable by force, is defeated within. As a man of action, his values are what can be seen and touched and demonstrated, as he demonstrates his authority when approached with drawn swords, disarming them with his words and presence alone "Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them" and

Hold your hands,
Both you of my inclining and the rest.
Were it my cue to fight, I should have known it
Without a prompter.

Desdemona is Good and True, Chaste and Just - and by his ownwords at the end, we know that he knows it as well. But Iago has turned his impressions of circumstances into a conviction of belief - and without hierarchical beliefs, what has he that is higher? “Good Honest Iago” uses lies, innuendo and a stolen handkerchief from Desdemona, a gift from Othello which was his Mother’s, that he is maneuvered to find in the possession of Cassio, and the facts themselves – physical features without any attempt at seeking a higher and deeper truth from Cassio and Desdemona themselves – are sufficient to convict them in his eyes, and his soul is laid waste.

The good, though mercenary, Moor is to be unmoored from his values by dint of them.

As the heirloom of Othello’s Mother given to his bride is lost and arranged to be falsely found by Iago, the heirloom of the West, the wisdom of Greco-Roman/Judeo-Christian literature, is lost and falsely found to be but fable by our Academe. With it the beliefs we have in truth and justice are distrusted and cast aside in favor of a deadening web of facts woven about us and holding our hearts down to the ground.

Othello, knowing the light she is to his own soul, says as he puts fair Desdemona to death “Put out the Light, and then put out the light”, with her death, his.

We in the West have cast off our anchor from the Vertical, and we too are unmoored and while afloat still, sinking all the same.

I've heard many explanations of Othello, but not one that matches where I'm going with this, so be warned, and perhaps I'm far a field, but to me it seems plain - Shakespeare meant Othello to stand for the virtues of the West, and Iago for the 'new Man' of the renaissance, as a warning and a diagnosis of the humanistic learning flourishing in Venice and Florence and the rest of the West. He meant to show that though in physical battle with a miserable enemy (ironically, then as now the Moslem), that enemy was defeatable by force of arms as well as by Nature, as they are in the play - but the true danger to the West lies within the west, among those it trusts the most, its advisors and defenders.

Othello thought his enemy was Cassio, the Florentine – just as we often hear those espousing Values denouncing Machiavelli, the Florentine, as being our enemy; but his true enemy was his closest advisor – as I think our true enemy is our closest and most trusted advisor, the teachings of Academe.

Coleridge had a phrase for describing Iago, 'the motive hunting of motiveless malignancy' the doing of evil for evils sake. But its presented as a quirk of personality, with no source outside its own self. While I agree with his description of the effects of Iago's personality, I think the source of it is traceable to our most trusted adviser, the learning we so prize, the teachings of Academe which are given us as facts and knowledge without rank, spread out flat, lacking any vertical anchor in the Cosmos; a flattened level of values where whim and malice are equally justified and justifiable in the absence of any hierarchy of values; and that may be our deadliest danger of all.

The New Man of the Renaissance makes many appearances in Shakespeare, his tragedies are rife with them in his villains, heroes as well as the everyman. Hamlet himself is a more benign, but equally adrift exponent of the thinking sweeping Europe, best exemplified at the time by Machiavelli. Now Machiavelli today is assumed to be some dark exponent of pursuing evil for powers sake, but that is untrue of him. He had values, and they were Florence, sound government and orderly rule; but they were his values by dint of birth, and extended no further above his plane of ethics than another. He advocated the doing of deeds for the purpose of accomplishing what he saw needed to be done. The purpose itself... could come from anywhere. It was no longer rooted in ethics or religon, Christian or any other for that matter.

There was no secular replacement for the Good and the True forthcoming from the Renaissance - Man, horizontal Man freed from the Vertical, was the measure of all things.

Shakespeare is famous for not seeming to advance an agenda in his plays, he doesn't seek to stand for any conception of the Good and True, he endorces no set of Values over another, but methodically goes about describing the Actual with a more piercing clarity turned upon human nature, its strengths, virtues, frailties and vices - than has been done by any other before or since. To my mind he illustrates the chaos of Valueless Man far better by way of leaving out what is not there, than he ever could have by trying to write them in.

Shakespeare was seeing the first incoming tide of the Renaissance, and along with the undeniable greatness and benefits it promised, he saw equally clearly the rot within it, that of power unchecked by goodness, and he saw the many Iago's inherent within its reach. Iago, MacBeth, Richard III, Henry V are all exemplars of different shades cast from its prism, and of course poor Hamlet the melancholy Dane, probably the only one besides Shakespeare himself who saw its strengths, its evils, and worse, its laying upon the souls of each man, the reigns, the spurs and the spinning compass of the unrooted normative. Man was seeking to acquire near Godlike power, perhaps even approaching the knowledge of the Gods - but what was most horrifying - melancholy-ifying – of all is the vision of attaining all the power of the Gods, while lacking the center and peace of Godlike wisdom.

Without that, what is left? What can be counted on of people, who look to no scale of virtue or justice to steer by? Does “As above, so below” apply, when the notions of above and below are discarded?

Does this give Shakespeare too much credit? Too much prognosticative abilities to see how the West will develop and unfold? Perhaps... but in answer to that, I have to first ask, have you read Shakespeare? Aristotle was probably the last man to comprehend all of mans knowledge and philosophy, but Shakespeare was possibly the first and last to comprehend all of mans soul, its heights and depths and middling’s... and if there is any truth whatsoever to what Harold Bloom claims, that Shakespeare invented the human, I don't see that adding Too and Too together to get Forethought, is all that much beyond him.

But even if this is not what was intended by Shakespeare through his plays in general, and with Othello in particular, one of the values of Poetry is that it not only enables the Poet to transmit his point of view to you in order to more clearly see the Truth as he does, but it also enables the reader, me and you, to apply that same lens to our own times and from our own perspective, to more clearly see the Truth of the world found all around me, and found all around you.

That is the power of Poetry, and why not only what Shakespeare wrote 400+ years ago, but also what Sophocles & Aeschylus wrote 2,500 years ago are still relevant, and still apply to our lives. What they said applies to our lives because what they said can be applied to our lives via our active hearts and minds; Not to mention Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, Moses....

Through that lens, to my eye, I see that not can come of knowledge unMoored from above, but a shallow spreading pool of evil, drowning all who persist in lying before it. Like a person who falls asleep and drowns in a bathtub - escaping the tepid waters of death requires the easiest of things, but to awaken and sit up. But the sleep is deep, and the flickering dreams are flashy and distracting, and oh so exciting... don't wake me just yet... just a few more minutes.

I Am what I Am,
I am not what I am,
Put out the Light, and then... put out the light.


Anonymous said...

While on the one hand I think it's possible that you may be reading too much into Shakespeare's actual intent, that doesn't change the fact that your interpretation here is a good and thought-provoking one.

I haven't read Othello yet, but my husband received a copy of the complete works of Shakespeare for Christmas, so perhaps I have some reading to do...

Van Harvey said...


Its well worth your time. I just added in this to the post:
"That is the power of Poetry, and why not only what Shakespeare wrote 400+ years ago, but also what Sophocles & Aeschylus wrote 2,500 years ago are still relevant, and still apply to our lives. What they said applies to our lives because what they said can be applied to our lives via our active hearts and minds; Not to mention Confucius, Buddha, Jesus, Moses....

BTW, two relatively new movies, "Othello" with Laurence Fishburne & Kenneth Brannagh, and "Merchant of Venice" with Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons, were both enjoyable.

Van Harvey said...

And thanks for stopping in - I'm still laughing from the morning comments at One Cosmos.

Oh my.

Anonymous said...

Hey you! I really enjoyed this post. It made me remember something once said: "In order to understand Man, read Shakespeare. In order to understand God, read the Bible."

I'd just bet one could get by on just those two bodies of work, and never feel out of place in the horizontal or vertical. Might make one rather dull at dinner parties, however.

Pity me, for tonight I don the garb of Elizabeth I and go to spy on the Minorcans' fete of Pedro Menedez. I shall have Mary, Queen of Scots attend (I let her out of prison just for the occasion!) and we'll be escorted by Sir Francis Drake. That'll make the Spaniards squirm! Oh, in the many years of history in this little town, the English are the most admired and hated.

We shall be very amused by it all.

(We, in the Imperial sense, of course.)


wv: wpzday!!

Van Harvey said...

Joan of argghh! said... "I'd just bet one could get by on just those two bodies of work, and never feel out of place in the horizontal or vertical. Might make one rather dull at dinner parties, however."

Was a time they were the key sources for an education, if I remember right, they were for Lincoln. Boring?! Abe may have been many things, but boring wasn't one of them (just don't ask him how the play went).