2000 10 21, virgin draft
A Mission Statement refer[s] to my thesis as conceived in the mid-1960s. By 1970 NYU had wasted so much of my time and money, had understood so little of what I said and wrote, had undercut every effort of that minority of professors who wanted to elevate me to stardom, that I leaped at Ivan Illich’s proposal that schools and their certificates be replaced by non-certifying learning networks and founded FLEX. FLEX planned to expand politically free learning into politically free data bases so that debased media and governments could also be replaced, the public losing nothing and gaining everything.
The Rand Corporation invented the internet in the 60s as a military fail-safe. Ivan Illich invented a different kind of internet in the 1960s: something for human use. I was the first person actually to offer networking to the public. (1970, ’71) The public said, Duh, and bought another lottery ticket. Nevertheless, committed to FLEX, I no longer needed my doctorate: FLEX campaigned for learning, for politically free exchange of knowledge, and against degrees. My secretly having a doctorate (as did Illich) would be an in-joke.
Preliminary drafts of my thesis had been commended as promising genius from the Chairman of the Comparative Literature department: Robert Clements. Other drafts merely received silent As from my intended supervisor in the English department. All that remained between me and another skin of a dead sheep was facing my orals so I could concentrate on the writing. I took the first question of the first section as tailor made to segue to my thesis. I lit into it like a terrier to a Frisbee. Before I was half-way into my second sentence, the referee interrupted me with an anti-intellectual literalist insult. Apparently, literature isn’t about anything. It’s just a “story.” Had I gone for the story she could have interrupted and insulted me the other way. I’d delayed my orals already knowing the immunity with which the fraternity brothers can harass initiates, especially those they know don’t respect them, the more so when they know the lack of respect has merit.
With FLEX I had already vowed to reform civilized communications. Why was I offering my pearls to these swine? I’d get FLEX rolling, get my fiction, far more profound than my thesis, published, and publish that thesis, my Meta-Oxymoron, to the general population: jargon as needed, but none that pandered to the English monopoly.
Public reform requires cooperation the public didn’t furnish. A writer needs a reader: publication requires a publisher. In the midst of America’s densest population I was singing in a cave. By 1990 I had given up any expectation of successful communication. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers had it right. There are no human beings. Or too few for the few to find each other.
Now I write not my thesis, but of my thesis. It’s an indictment. To be found by God for Judgment Day. En suite, my mission has changed. I am far less interested in the original terms of the thesis than I am in its implications in the light of my adult experience of kleptocratic ideals in the face of actual life. Shakespeare sang of his ideal love, praised his virtue, cajoled his chastity toward marriage. Then it turns out that both poet and ideal love are sleeping with the same woman and she’s also sharing her syphilis.
The priest leads the virgin to expect the sacrament of marriage; what she gets is a black eye. How can we be surprised? Shakespeare told us.
The following is one of a number of restarts to Meta-Oxymoron that I mounted at my homepage. I leave it up till I’m sure I’ve reabsorbed its points in its successors.
Summarizing the part of my biographical narratives that lead to my young manhood: I wanted to be worthy of God’s love; I wanted to imitate Christ in whatever way I could; simultaneously, none of that could really work because I was also a natural animal with fewer inhibitions than average … cultural and social pressures had funneled me into the hopper of the school and university systems; I was “lucky” enough (and talented enough) that at least part of that time was spent in a school as good as such schools get; my army buddy beat God in helping me decide what our careers would be — teaching college English; teaching college normally requires graduate school; and graduate school is about as far as you can get from any, in Cardinal Newman’s phrase, Idea of a University.
It was in the mid-sixties that I conceived the theme that eclipsed all other candidates for my doctoral thesis. I saw that Shakespeare’s sonnets exploited the medieval theme of ideal love with a genius we find more than a few examples of only in the Renaissance. He took something old, kept it recognizable, but also transformed it into something new. When classical figures were unearthed in the early Renaissance, Cellini imitated them with such success that they were not only believed to be genuine, but the best of the genuine. Shakespeare rountinely transformed what he borrowed. No one mistook it for Latin; but many thought that he’d equaled his sources, some that he’d surpassed them.
Once we get to details I’ll argue that for a linear progress of the medieval Ladder of Love, Shakespeare’s sonnets are inept as a sequence: it’s Petrarch and Sidney who are in line with Dante there.
The Sonnets are not a steady progress from low to high; they’re a war.
We must concede that the Sonnets have no textual authority. There is no author-approved edition. The sonnets were pirated. Yet I say they form a kind of sequence anyway: one I shall characterize as meta-oxymoronic. The Sonnets are not a steady progress from low to high; they’re a war. One theater of war, one change of scene. They’re a war in which the order in which they’re published or read is not critical to the nature of the battle. There are individual sonnets in which ideal love leads the poet to a “heaven” of sorts (trust that I will develop the nature of those quotation marks) but the sonnets as a whole do not remain there. On the contrary, the ideal love sonnets collide with the Dark Lady sonnets: sonnets of experience.
Conventional Ladder of Love sonnet sequences begin with the hangover and ascend to inebriation. Shakespeare’s sonnets in contrast start with no pain and end in the gutter.
Both the sets for the ideal love and the dark love are of course imaginary: they’re poetry. But the first one hundred twenty-six sonnets are redolent of imagination the way cosmology, theology, and philosophy are redolent of imagination; the remainder use imagination to discover warts and to love them anyway, to experience passion and then to feel remorse, to bark our shins on imaginings that seem so “real” as to occupy physical space.
Renaissance poetry loved oxymoron. Who could list primier examples of figures of oxymoron and not think early of examples from Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, the Sonnets?
I say that the Sonnets themselves are an oxymoron: a meta-oxymoron. I add volume to the perception with the modern metaphor that they are simultaneously cybernetic. Cybernetics is the “algebra” of navigation. Not how do we get from New York to Paris; that’s just ordinary math. Cybernetics is how do we get from a to b.
Or, more fundamentally: how do we walk? how do we stand? How do we stay afloat in order to think about a destination?
How do we walk? Left. Right. Bilaterally symmetrical creatures put the levers of one side “forward.” Bulk, momentum accompany. The creature will fall if it doesn’t correct, bring the other side forward. And so forth. Standing still involves the same problems: corrections for imbalance. Balance is a chimira; cybernetic correction is the reality. Ideal love? Let’s correct with a little real love. Light? You couldn’t see it without a matrix of dark. Dark? Nothing at all without light to penetrate.
My thesis came to me not while reading Shakespeare per se, but while reading Shakespeare after learning something about Chaucer and his Wife of Bath and the immortal first sentence of her Prologue. I translate modern prose from the Middle English poetry:
Experience: though no authority were in this word, experience is right enough for me to speak of the woe of marriage.
We characterize the Renaissance as the rebirth of learning. Are we saying that the Middle Ages never learned anything? Examination proves many of our grand phrases to be based on things far more modest than implied. It was the learning of Classical Greece and Rome that was being re-learned. Modest? More modest than Learning as an original Platonic Form. In practice, it was dynamite. For one central reason. The Holy Roman Empire was more powerful than the secular Roman Empire of the Caesars. The chief authority of that empire was the Roman Catholic Church. The Church had power. The Church said it had Truth: the monopoly on God. The Church based its authority on three things: the Bible, the writings of the Patristic Fathers, and tradition. Perhaps that “t” too should be capitalized: Tradition!
The Renaissance turned up some buried statues, some lost manuscripts … So what? Well, one of the lost manuscripts turned out to be an old Bible, written in Greek. This Greek Bible was not the Church’s Latin, word for word in another language. In other words, Church authority was suddenly a problem (for the small handful that knew). The Church attempted to keep that handful small by declaring the study of Greek to be a capital offense. Men like Rabelais took their lives in their hands to defy that edict. (Church authority had of course always been a problem for heretics — and the Church had “proved” heresy about as well as the Nazis had proved the “Jewishness” of their victims. But once the Septuagint was known to exist, the Church had an internal problem with its authority.
I’ll go into all of this in more detail in the development files. Now we just survey.
Professor John Hurt Fisher, then MLA Secretary as well as full professor at NYU, had presented the Wife of Bath‘s opening sentence — three iambic pentameter lines — as a bald reference to the medieval controversy between Scholastic Realism and nominalism. The Scholastics had somewhat duplicated Plato despite not knowing him. They had it that God and only God was fully real. All else was faulty reality, flawed, something toward illusion. Their philosophy was called Realism. Realism graduated to become Christian Orthodoxy.
The catholic aspect, “universal,” of Roman Catholicism has always been more wished for than actual. Not all Christians were good orthodox Christians as we may well know from the many purges and inquisitions. As a sometime mystic myself, I love the idea of Realism. A little comparative religion will show parallel traits in non-Christian philosophies: maya, for example. As a twentieth-century person, getting nailed by the bluegill’s spines before I’ve quite gotten hold of him, having my eye chemistry’s capacity to absord red exhausted while the sound track deafens me at the movies, the Scholastics use of our core natural language word “real” reminds me of my high school physics teacher telling us that if we pushed on a wall till we ruptured ourselves we had nevertheless done no “work” until the wall moved. Force through distance. Sorry. Don’t intrude artificial definitions into the natural language. In other words, Scholastic Realism means as it were “the opposite” of what everybody else means by realism.
Realism in specific had some particular opponents. Abelard, for example, argued that we were being anything but real when we preferred abstractions to actualities. Mankind is a myth. What we actually have is William and Geoffrey and Alison. Like most philosophers throughout history the Scholastics looked for their philosophy in their navels. (“History” is of course the 6,000 year rule of kleptocracies. The Bible’s dating of “Creation” is absolutely correct.) Simultaneously however, something that sure resembles modern science was aborning. Roger Bacon actually performed experiments. Contemporary Chaucer scholarship, aided by micro-biology, has elevated the authority of a hitherto disregarded source for our text of Chaucer. One of the manuscripts reads “experiment” where we’ve always read “experience.” Experiment: though no authority were in this world … Hell, the Wife of Bath had been multiply-married: she was a marriage scientist!
Abelard found himself branded heretic. He was castrated. Tradition has it that he was punished by powerful enemies of his love for Heloise. That’s like saying that Francis Bacon was disbarred for accepting bribes behind his bench or that income tax evasion was Capone’s real crime. There was nothing new about monks having girl friends. Likewise, in Bacon’s Elizabethan time there would be nothing new about judges accepting bribes. The trouble with Francis Bacon was that he nevertheless followed his conscience. Made the whole profession look bad. Medieval Abelard was castrated for being both smart and honest, not for wetting his wick. Of course he could have had all three if he’d kept his honest mouth shut.
Abelard’s philosophy of particulars was called nominalism. Nominalism was branded heresy. It went underground. By the mid-Fourteen Century nominalism had a bit of a revival at the hands of William of Occam. By the 1390’s nominalism also had the Wife of Bath.
I’ve just expanded a bit on what Dr. Fischer said in class. I’m writing my current understanding. At the time I thought Oooo and went back to my life. (I was practicing scholarship for Renaissance literature, not medieval. There I was just filling requirements. Much as I loved Chaucer I never expected to teach him beyond the survey courses.) But then I reread the Sonnets. And the veil was rent.
The problems I’ve experienced in presenting my thesis at my home page concern not the thesis as originally conceived but my experience with it since the conception. I still have my balls but that’s about all I have. Had I been developing a bomb, some fast way to kill everybody and everything, I believe I would have been feted. Even had the bomb fizzed. You do know I hope that there were contracts out on Einstein’s life until his bomb worked and Life Magazine decided to make him a hero. You also know I hope that Einstein’s physics teacher had done everything in his power to keep Relativity from getting published. If our post-war sweetheart had said at the outset, You can make bombs with it, you fools, his whole way might have been well lubricated.
My reasons for neglecting even my Macroinformation to struggle here have less to do with Shakespeare than they do with my experience as a creative intellectual writer and institutional reformer both in academia and with the public. I also realized mid-current paper that my Macro-Information and my Meta-Oxymoron are much the same topic. Further, whatever I might say about the medieval Church applies in spades not only to NYU but to the United States and much of our contemporary world. Much of our famous Western empiricism is a conjurers trick. The FBI lab has been caught framing evidence? palming it as real? You don’t understand: when the shaman fakes a miracle, it isn’t fake: it’s for the good of the true faith. Once you convince yourself that your cause is the right cause, then the logic of the Report from Iron Mountain will sustain you in all endeavors. Evidence against the good guys doesn’t count; only evidence against the bad guys.
Thus I start talking about the sonnets and wind up talking about Rodney King. If I drop dead before I’ve read a single actual sonnet here, I don’t believe it should matter much to honest intellects. Surely there are still at least one or two? As nonpareil as my readings may sometimes be, I believe anyone should be able to see my basic points in his own readings. The evidence is in bookstores and libraries. I’ve already said what to be alert for. When I do read, I’m not going to conjure it there. I don’t want to “suggest” it into reality.
Meantime, what do I do with all my precious false starts. For now, I’ll just string them below. There’s good stuff in any if you feel inclined go probe. Repetitions? Ignore them, once you’ve got it the first time. One caveat however. Not all repetitions are empty redundancies. Think of Gertrude Stein’s line about a rose. Is it identity followed by identity? or difference followed by difference? The person who knows his turf from his couch knows it much more thinly than the person who dug his home’s foundation, photographed it from the air, waded the stream, hunted the weeds for bait … At all times I am looking for double descriptions of things: see the sonnets as contrast: light and dark; see the sonnets as oxymoron: light and dark jarred against each other; see the sonnets as cybernetic: light and dark balancing each other, correcting each other …
In thirty-odd years of teaching my thesis however I might (at Colby, through FLEX, in conversation, here …), I have not yet encountered one example of what I could unequivically acknowledge as understanding. Did the brain-snatchers really get every single human being but me? Or am I the one that they got and I’ve been helplessly programed into a matrix of illusion? Either I’m the one who’s truly human or I’m the one who’s not. If it’s me, then there are so few of us that encounters are rare and contact is made primarily between man and book. Then again, maybe the books are part of the illusion. There never was a Shakespeare: just demons pretending there was, manufacturing fake evidence. If I’m merely a lunatic, someone ought to be able to diagnose it: outloud, in public; not in the controled light of Church, courthouse, hospital, or classroom, but outdoors, in the plain light of day.
Recent (2003 12 14) phrasing at Macroinformation:
My theory of Macroinformation is intimately related to the thesis I’d intended for my doctoral work: on oxymora of oxymora (meta-oxymoron) in Shakespeare’s (cybernetic) sonnets: the “ideal” (the fair love: a redundancy) spars with the “actual” (the dark lady: an oxymoron) throughout the sonnets in a way that recapitulates the age-old war between authority and experience (highly notable in Church orthodoxy versus nominalist “heresy.” The sonnets seem to be two-dimensional, pasteboard, pageant; seen as a whole, they are dramatic, ontological, epistemological: very deep and very “modern.” Our knee-jerk ideas are exalting; our daily experience is rougher. Shakespeare doesn’t utter the truth; he surrounds it, covers it from all sides till a one-dimensional spectrum becomes a four-dimensional sphere.
Rephrasing of 2001 06 23
While the dominant core-concept of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, a “fair love,” is a redundancy, and while the sub-dominant complement of the Sonnets, a “dark lady,” is an oxymoron, the Sonnet “sequence,” fair-love / dark-lady, is a meta-oxymoron: an oxymoron at least one level more abstract (and potentially more powerful) than an oxymoron.
The thesis I intended to use for my doctoral dissertation is based in Shakespeare’s sonnets. Everyone knows that the Sonnets concern on the one hand a Fair Love: and, on the other, a Dark Lady.
I invite you to notice: “Fair”-“Love” is almost a redundancy. Fairness, especially to an Elizabethan, meant fair skinned, light haired … There are overtones of “fair” in a moral or ethical sense. There are overtones of “spiritual” “purity.” A “fair love” is utterly in keeping with Renaissance values: which of course relate to Christian values, which of course relate to Manichean values … Certainly the love was “fair”; how else could the poet love publicly? Though no law was written, the Renaissance tradition of sonnet sequences demanded it.
Shakespeare routinely took a popular idiom and added a wrinkle. Dante’s Beatrice was a fair virginal female. In England, Sir Philip Sidney’s Laura followed suit. Michelangelo did his own thing: and so did Shakespeare: his fair love is a guy!
But the Sonnets are far from homosexual. (And biographically the Sonnets have a political and economic existence that complicates things: with a full measure of uncertainty.) Both the Fair Love and the poet share an erotic love: the Dark Lady. “Dark” and “Lady” are the opposite of redundant. In the Sonnet-Christian-Renaissance-Sonnet Sequence tradition, the phrase is an oxymoron: a paradox, a contradiction, a wedding of incompatibles. Oxymoron was a popular figure in the Renaissance and Shakespeare employed it liberally. I say however that in the Sonnets Shakespeare did something extra: he employs what I shall call meta-oxymoron.
The prefix “meta-” means orthogonal. Metaphysics is supposedly at right angles to (or perpendicular to) physics. In a four dimensional universe length, width, depth, and time are mutually orthogonal to each other. So if “dark” and “lady” are contradictory, what contradiction is “perpendicular” to them? The way the sonnets as a whole divide against themselves. Dark Lady is an oxymoron: Fair Love / Dark Lady I propose is a meta-oxymoron: the first of many in the Sonnets. (The pitting of ideals versus experience is one I concentrate on.)
My thesis was never written beyond a few preliminary papers. I entered graduate school in 1962. I’d thought of my original title of “Oxymoron of Idea” by 1964 or ’65. By 1970 my professors still didn’t reveal to me any understanding of what I was saying: in this or in a dozen other areas. In fact it got worse: I’d be interrupted and insulted. By that time I’d told Ivan Illich that I would do my best to institute his idea of networking the public educationally. I decided that the public couldn’t possibly be as dense as my graduate school teachers and I eschewed my Ph.D. Once the Free Learning Exchange, Inc. was running properly, I would write my thesis as a “popular” book. I was wrong: the public is far denser than my professors. Publishers are equally dense.
Now I try to employ a portion of my home page to tell posterity what my own time missed. I’m afraid it missed public networking as well: the dating services, the internet, America-on-line, CompuServe … are meretricious sleezeballs compared to the pure (and inexpensive!) networking I proposed. But I’m afraid my Meta-Oxymoron section is a mess. My bitterness has, understandably I believe, infected it.
I’ll keep trying — while I live — to get it right: after I finish development of my concept of Macroinformation: an extension of my idea of meta-oxymoron.
2012 just glancing through this for links, typos, I remind myself that a huge part of my thesis regards the order of the sonnets. Is Thorpe’s 1609 order Shakespeare’s? Did Shakespeare have an order? How well can we guess what it is?
I put on a play at NYU in place of a paper in which I pretended to drop the paper I was reading, pretending that the pages got shuffled. My meaning, opaque to all the best I could tell, was that my points worked independently of their order. My reading of the Sonnets is stable no matter which order you read them in. That’s in diametrical contrast to the usual sonnet sequence Renaissance order: Dante’s is linear, Sidney’s is linear; there are possible linear Shakespeare readings, the first 17 for example; but my meta-oxymoon reading is stable, meta-, and non-linear.
2013 02 06 I have to finish 1) reading my three basic sonnet representatives: 18, 130, 199
2) posting all the Sonnets, so you can read among them as you wish
3) editions introductory drafts into specific topics and sub-topics: Realism, Nominalism, sequence, Abelard… Then I must edit, merge all such spinoffs into new coherent essays.