Here's the video of a lecture on Hamlet that I gave on October 8, 2016 at the New Center for Psychoanalysis, where I'm a doctoral candidate. It's a reading of my essay "Tragedy, Hamlet, and Luther," which was published in 2002 inForschungen zur Frühen Neuzeit, Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main. As I read, I periodically stop to clarify a point or add to it.
Here is YouTube's link for The Phantom Carriage, an earlier film made by Victor David Sjöström to which Bergman's Wild Strawberries owes much of its spiritual character. Sjöström plays Isak Borg in Bergman's film.
This is the video from my first recital, which took place on May 28th at the Church in Ocean Park, in Santa Monica, CA. My vocal teacher and coach is David Benesty. The concert was dedicated to the memory of the great David Bowie, two of whose songs I performed near the end of the program.
Here are translations of the four pieces I sang in French, German, and Italian (click to enlarge, so that the whole is visible):
In late 2006 I moved into a new neighborhood in West Los Angeles. I didn’t know a single resident, but I knew my Shakespeare fairly well and brought my Oxford Complete edition with me like a talisman. A former professor of English and a mostly secular Jew, I had been told that I would have been a Rabbi had I been born a century or two before. Such clergy provide pastoral care, to be sure, but their identities and professional lives are often centered on textual exegesis. Hermeneutics has, after all, twin sources in Jerusalem (where the interpreted text was the Torah) and Alexandria (where it was the poems of Homer). Instead my texts were the canon as taught at the colleges and universities where I had worked (especially those chosen for inclusion in introductory humanities courses), and these included plenty of Shakespeare.
Essential elements of my cultural equipment travelled with me into the new neighborhood where I was a stranger, conferring a vague faith that guarded me from the loneliness I feared. The move confronted me with a piece of social problem-solving, made harder by the well-known disappearance of mid-sized social institutions (those larger than the nuclear family but smaller than the state). In his lauded 2001 book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam chronicled that shift from community to isolation in American life since the Second World War. My solution was twofold: find a bookstore (I was fortunate to discover the Sam Johnson’s Bookshop on Venice Boulevard), and go to a Shakespeare play. Soon enough I found a production of Julius Caesar just a few miles outside the zip code. I’d never heard of the company—the Porters of Hellsgate—and I had no notion of just how a solo trip to the theater could possibly enhance my social life, but I had to roll the dice and hope for the best.
What I walked into that night in early 2007 was the first production by a new company of young players, full of heart and passion, neither paying to play nor expecting a dime for their work. The actors were competent and impressive, but one stood out head and shoulders above the rest: Charles Pasternak, who starred as Mark Antony and directed the show. His handling of the blank verse was impeccable, mellifluous, and nuanced. Each word was phonically eventful, because Pasternak’s voice filled out the syllables with meaning, music, and dynamic crescendi and decrescendi. He knew exactly what he was doing, and when his heart was “in the coffin there with Caesar,” mine was, too.
After the curtain call I approached the 23 year old actor and said, “listening to you handle blank verse is like watching a boxing match; it’s that eventful in each moment; they’re all loaded with subtleties and yet it all flows. Thank you for an inspirational performance.” He seemed moved, and I ventured a gesture that might help me with my isolation: I had translated Sophocles’ Three Theban Plays for Wordsworth Editions, and the book had been published in 2005. A devotee of Shakespeare and of the inventor of blank verse, Christopher Marlowe, I had rendered the great Athenian in that meter because, due to the Elizabethans, blank verse is the standard metrical form for the tragic drama in the English language. The process had been strangely spiritual, even numinous; despite my skeptical cast of mind, I continually felt as if Sophocles (whom I began to call “the Old Man in the ground”) were speaking through me. Pasternak was a bit taken aback by my zeal, but he saw something in me and decided it would be worth reading the book. So I returned the next night and saw the play a second time, handing him my Sophocles at the end of another great performance.
It took three years, but eventually the company produced my Oedipus the Tyrant for its premier. By that time I was a member of the company, and I played the blind seer Teiresias, in Biblical robes with white contacts in my eyes, leaning on a crooked staff. I played opposite Charles Pasternak’s Oedipus, under his direction. The run got extended and we received a glowing review in the L.A. Weekly, from its best critic, Stephen Leigh Morris. What had gotten me there was Charles’ faith in me: shortly after we met, the Porters began gearing up for their second production, Much Ado About Nothing, and after an audition I was given the small role of Antonio. That went well enough to help win me more and larger roles in subsequent productions, until eventually I was made a company member. Today (2016) I’ve done eleven productions, nine of them with that company.
My story is one of many thousands in which the works of Shakespeare serve as a social medium of contact and cohesion. It is a discourse of the past, through which we access not only the events of vanished dynasties and legendary figures, but also the lost relational life that held sway before we were atomized by car culture, electronic devices, apartment living, and the decay of social institutions. Perhaps the closest analogy is that other atavistic cultural practice—religion. The house of worship is the theater; the liturgy is the Shakespearean text; the ritual is rehearsal and performance; the priesthood are the scholars and directors; the votaries, monks and nuns are the actors; and the population in the pews are the theatergoing audiences who show up for plays they’ve seen and heard again and again.
As I used to tell my students when I was a professor of English, texts of a certain quality are rich enough to repay even the devotional mode of attention we bring to the Bible, the Vedas, or the Koran—with the difference that literary texts (or sacred texts approached in a literary way) do not require doctrinal commitments. At no point need one trouble oneself about one’s degree of conviction that Henry the Fifth really gave that speech at Agincourt, nor about just how many children Lady Macbeth had nursed. All that is required is the Coleridgean “willing suspension of disbelief.”
Othello conflates Desdemona’s
handkerchief, which is real, and Desdemona’s affair with Cassio, which is not.
Iago’s hypnotic communications are designed to set up a false equivalence
between the stubborn, concrete reality of the handkerchief and the ethereal
wisp of Iago’s toxic fiction. This real handkerchief is like Othello’s dark
skin in the bigoted imagination of Brabantio, the father of Othello’s wife, who
makes a mistake not entirely different from Othello’s:
O thou foul thief, where hast thou
stow'd my daughter?
Damn'd as thou art, thou hast
For I'll refer me to all things of sense,
If she in chains of magic were not bound, 285
Whether a maid so tender, fair and
So opposite to marriage that she
The wealthy curled darlings of our
Would ever have, to incur a general
Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom290
Of such a thing as thou, to fear,
not to delight.
Judge me the world, if 'tis not gross in sense
That thou hast practised on her
with foul charms,
Abused her delicate youth with
drugs or minerals
That weaken motion: I'll have't
disputed on; 295
'Tis probable and palpable to thinking.
I therefore apprehend and do attach
For an abuser of the world, a
Of arts inhibited and out of
warrant. (I, ii. ll. 282-299)
Note Brabantio’s rhetoric of the
concrete: “all things of sense”; “gross in sense”; “palpable.” These epithets
of materiality fit Othello’s skin—“the sooty bosom / Of such a thing as
thou”—but not its meaning in Brabantio’s “thinking.” The “magic” he imagines
Othello practicing upon his daughter is immaterial, not only by definition
(“charms” are impalpable) but also because it’s a fiction (“drugs or minerals”
are palpable, but not these imaginary ones) like Desdemona’s affair. The
father’s misjudgment of the husband and the husband’s misjudgment of the wife
both turn upon material objects whose empirically verifiable realness is
confused with their meaning—the very meaning that empiricism and the senses
cannot verify. Objects are a treacherous substitute for knowledge; they pitch
people into certainties that lead to violence. Father and husband are wrong
about the same question: does Desdemona really love Othello? On the logical
“square of opposition,” the object called Othello’s “sooty bosom” creates for
Brabantio a false negative about his daughter’s love for the Moor, and a false
positive about Othello’s supposed “chains of magic,” both of which are
immaterial. The handkerchief creates for Othello a false positive about his
wife’s possible infidelity. There is foreshadowing in Brabantio’s
equivocations: “'Tis probable and palpable to thinking,” where the merely
probable is finessed into the palpable.
crisis of the play comes just before the denoument; first Othello murders
Desdemona, then he and others find out Iago has been lying and Desdemona is
innocent. In the murder, Othello arrives at the nexus of palpable object and
impalpable subjectivity: Desdemona’s breath, which is both a real object and
the life force inside her. Indeed there is a universal idea in human language
that subjectivity can best be represented metaphorically as a corollary of
breath. In Latin spiritus, Greek pneuma and psyche, and Hebrew ruach,
the older term for breath or wind acquires an abstract sense in which it
represents the immaterial subjectivity of a human being.
After all, as the Iliad says so many
times, living people have breath inside them and are endowed with mind, but
dead bodies have neither breath nor mind. Besides the strawberried
handkerchief, the most important object in the play is the pillow with which
Othello smothers Desdemona, preventing her breath from entering her body and thereby
forcing her spirit out of it.The
air is thus linked to both materiality and to aliveness. The spirit, then, is
uncanny in that it lies between these two categories—the material which we know
by the senses, and the mind of the (human or divine) other which we cannot
know. The slipperiness of this uncanny thing/nonthing is thematised in the play
in figures like Othello’s a fortiori
reasoning: “I had rather be a toad, / And live
upon the vapour of a dungeon, / Than keep a corner in the thing I love /
For others' uses” (III, iii, ll. 1931-34).
we assume the frightfully patriarchal norms of the period, the tragedy of the
play is not Othello’s mad amorality in killing his wife, but his torture for
lack of knowledge, at the hands of Iago’s sadism. Like Lear, Othello is ruined
by an insistence on certainty that the person who claims to love him really is
sincere, since that certainty is not only unavailable but ruinous in itself.
When the apostle Thomas demands to see the holes in the hands of the risen
Jesus, he precludes faith—“the evidence of things not seen.” For Lear, what engages the senses is what counts: his
lands, his spectacular grandiosity in royal robes, and the evocative flowerly
language of Regan and Goneril. Land—real
estate—is given to them, while plain-spoken Kent and Cordelia are deprived of
land and banished from it. “Thy truth then be thy dower,” since “nothing will
come of nothing.” As with Othello, the mistake is about who loves the
protagonist and who does not, but also about what is real and what isn’t.
Ontology is a big problem for a meaning-making animal; Luther changed his
position about the “real presence” in the Eucharist no fewer than six times,
because the nexus between God and the wafer (“this is my body”) is just as
paradoxical as the nexus between mind and breath. From outside Christian piety,
and perhaps from inside as well, the Eucharist is a ritual whose pathos lies in
its failure to resolve the problem of other minds. When God becomes a human
person in the Incarnation, the problem of belief in the reality of God’s
subjectivity and the problem of belief in the reality of other human subjects
collapse into a single problem.
2. The Stone
heart is turned to stone,” Othello declares, “I strike it, and it hurts my
hand”; and later, “O perjured woman, thou dost stone thy heart.” This image of
the interior stone seems to encode the crux of the tragedy. One part of
Othello—his jealousy, a skepticism about the inner life of another
person—injures him, now not only in the hand but in toto. The stone heart represents the loss of the capacity to
feel, including the loss of compassion for the wife he will kill; yet it also
symbolizes the exactly wrong answer to the question of what is inside the body. Are other human bodies the automata
Descartes feared they might be—machines full of dead matter? The equivocal
right answer is that Desdemona and Othello really are the flesh and blood they
appear to be, yet they are also the non-visible spirits which they must merely
infer. Only an ordinary, non-tragic comportment toward the world can free us
from the dualism which philosophical skepticism—de omnibus dubitandum—imposes on Descartes. “If you wanted to doubt
everything, you would not get as far as doubting anything,” wrote Wittgenstein in
response to him. “Doubt comes after
belief. The child learns by believing the adult.”
sexuality of the marriage bed prescribes an acceptance of both body and soul,
and of the mysterious nexus uniting them after they have been sundered by
religion or philosophy. Stanley Cavell has argued that the node of Othello’s
unconscious fear is that Desdemona has an interior life of her own, distinct
from his imagining of her; a flesh and blood woman, and not the perfect figure
of his own idealization. Insofar as this idealization is a projection, Cavell
states, the underlying fear is that he too is just flesh (and Black flesh at
that, susceptible to the mockeries of the play’s first scene), doomed to die
and to be forever flawed (“my perfect soul,” says Othello).
is rooted in a disturbance of embodiment, a fall into dualism caused by an
encounter with the body as an (alien) object, as a consequence of a relational
trauma, in Othello’s case perhaps related to the objectification of the black body.
Here is Cavell:
Nothing could be more certain to
Othello than that Desdemona exists; is flesh and blood; is separate from him;
other. This is precisely the possibility that tortures him… his professions of
skepticism over her faithfulness is a cover story for a deeper conviction… the
cause of skepticism [is] the attempt to convert the human condition, the
condition of humanity, into an intellectual difficulty, a riddle (to interpret
a metaphysical finitude as an intellectual lack). (Cavell, 1979).
Andrew Cutrofello paraphrases
Cavell thus: “Something like skepticism underlies Othello’s jealousy; something
like jealousy underlies Descartes’ skepticism… skepticism and jealousy are two
forms of the same psychological complex; namely, an inability to tolerate
someone else’s independent existence” (Bates and Wilson, 2014). What interests
me here is the way the figure of the stone gets used as a defense against
aliveness in both the self and the other.
It is the cause, it is the cause,
Let me not name it to you, you
It is the cause. Yet I'll not shed
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers
And smooth as monumental alabaster.
Comparing his wife to an alabaster
statue is part of Othello’s unconscious defense against a female subjectivity
he cannot control or surveille. The stone metaphor here is consistent with the
rhetoric of impossible, inhuman purity: “whiter skin of hers than snow.”
Obsession with purity is associated with compulsion, as in the handwashing of Lady
Macbeth, or the compulsive character of jealousy itself, with its constant
search for evidence of infidelity. Nothing is whiter than snow, and only a
corpse with no blood at all could approach that kind of blank whiteness. There
is a tension in the text (even if not in the handkerchief itself) between a
pure white that erases the mark of the human, preferring lifeless snow or
alabaster, and a worked artifact that expresses the concrete, localized
finitude of our nature and stands for blood and for food.
his own blackness by participating in the conventional valorization of
aristocratic female beauty as “fair,” untainted by that exposure to the tanning
sun which fieldwork imposes on peasants. “Work” is a term of bodily exertion,
including sexual exertion, where the spirit gets its hands dirty by engaging
with the real world: “you rise to play,” says Iago to Desdemona and his wife,
“and go to bed to work.” Eight times the embroidered strawberries of the
handkerchief are referred to as “the work,” as the speakers go back and forth
on the question of its removal from the cloth. If the red of the berries
represents the red bloodstains on Desdemona’s wedding sheets, the
back-and-forth about taking out the embroidery parallels the ambiguity as to whether
or not her marriage has already been consummated.The handkerchief has been dyed in “mummy,” so it may be a
dark or even black one (Smith, 2015), as Ian Smith has recently argued; that
may or may not preclude the interpretation of the strawberries as blood spots.
That the family of
Othello regarded the handkerchief as magic would suggest that it has served as
a transitional object for more than one person whose relationship to reality
was so demanding that it required such a talisman for its safe maintenance.
That the childlike Desdemona kept the handkerchief “to kiss and talk to” would
seem to fit closely Winnicott’s notion of a “transitional object” (often a
favorite teddy bear, or security blanket) located between the warm omnipotence of a naïve psyche, and the cold
resistance of an objectively real world. When Othello takes on Iago’s projected
jealousy, the handkerchief is stripped of this transitional quality. Instead it
gets framed as the stubborn real object whose interpretation seems beyond the
reach of subjective reframing; it appears as if its significance were totally
unambiguous, as if the fiction of the adultery were as evident in the object as
the fact of the handkerchief itself.
Falling in love is
one of the touchstones by which we appreciate the value of subjective truths.
The experience of falling in love brings with it the obvious fiction that, like
the circle-people in Aristophanes’ soulmate story (see Plato’s Symposium), the couple were uniquely
meant for each other. Similarly and for the same reason, the experience of
infancy brings with it the fiction that yours is the perfect mother. To be
concretely skeptical of these fictions—regarding them as absolute falsehoods
rather than absolute truths—is to begin to die. Salvation, Montaigne explains,
lies in the middle road between hubristic certainties and hubristically
ambitious doubts. Accept what is there, and you will be as strong as it is
possible to be. For the purposes of living a life, a necessary illusion is no
illusion at all. In other words,
when the left hemisphere tells the right, “God is not real, your wife is not
faithful, and your mother was not good enough—but you didn’t hear it from me,”
the correct reply is, “didn’t hear what”?
“Of Experience” is about the prudence of a moderate form of philosophical
doubt. We should be skeptical of generalizations, but not so skeptical as to
dismiss concrete particulars, even though there is no ultimate certainty of
them. Montaigne’s pragmatism, his epistemological humility, make him a rare
figure—wise enough to appreciate the tragic nature of human life, but humble
enough to forego the grandiosity that courts disaster. Without hubris, there is
no nemesis. This essay about humble skepticism, which steers straight between
naïve dogmatism and over-sophisticated doubting, is expounded in the context of
an horrible ailment: the kidney stone in Montaigne’s body that tore up his
urethra until he passed it. Othello is grandiose and speaks metaphorically of a
stone inside his body; Montaigne is impressively humble and speaks literally of
a stone inside his body.
The stone is like
the body in its materiality, but it is the opposite of the body in being devoid
of mind. Stones are the opposite of meanings: “you blocks, you stones, you
worse than senseless things,” says Shakespeare’s patrician who scolds the plebs
for their mindlessness in Julius Caesar.
The same play has Marc Antony warn the crowd they will be enflamed by hearing
Caesar’s will read aloud, because they are not “men of stone.” The uncanny in
that play occurs at the point of friction between the tragic design of the
omniscient God / Author and the subjectivity of the characters captive to it,
e.g., when Caesar’s statue bleeds in Calphurnia’s dream. Stones are what does
not bleed, does not feel, does not live. The kidney stone inside the body of
Montaigne can’t be interpreted away; all Montaigne can do is reframe it so that
it is less and less like the indifferent jagged stone it must be. Thus he
weaves a narrative of the stone as teacher, physician, companion, even to the
point of attributing to the stone a vulnerable life like his own: “you [men]
kill me far more often than I kill you,” says the stone to Montaigne. Here,
killing the stone seems to mean passing it out of the body; once the horrific
ordeal is over, the man can again afford to regard the stone for what it
is—dead matter without malice or empathy. It is as if Montaigne were reading
Job 5:23, “Thou shalt be in league with the stones of the field…”
emphasizes the effect of contingency which Shakespeare achieves with the
apparently random dropping of the handkerchief: “The lovers are not
star-crossed; the protagonist is neither hounded by fates nor predestinated by
oracles; the retrospective design bears the signature, not of necessity, but of
chance; we listen in vain for the ring of inevitability” (Levin, 1976, p. 159).
Following Levin, Katherine Eisaman Maus has written: “In Richard III…Shakespeare allows the audience’s oversight of the
stage action to approximate divine omniscience: we know what is happening, we
know what will happen, we approve the design of providence. In Othello, this is emphatically not the
case” (Maus, 1995). Plays which do seem haunted by an underlying necessity are
those in which foreknowledge (in the form of oracles, etc.) doubles for the
authorial function. What drives Othello’s pathology to its manifest conclusion
is the questing sadism of Iago, whom we do not tend to experience as an
instrument of Shakespeare’s controlling presence because there is nothing
Olympian about Iago that could suggest the high perch of the author. In Oedipus, by contrast, Apollo and
Sophocles are two names for what makes things happen as they do.
(particularly in tragedies of knowledge like Oedipus and Julius Caesar), the
inaccessible knowledge necessary to avoid suffering is encoded into the text by
an agency that appears outside the text as authorial function and internal to
the text as divine providence. That encoded knowledge takes the form of
prophecies, oracles, omens, dreams, and so on. In Othello, too, the horrors and
the knowledge necessary to avoid them come from one source, not God but—Iago.
The snares are lies and suggestions like “I like not that.” The unavailable way
out which Iago puts right under Othello’s nose is the non-anxious alternative
interpretation of the snares:
Good my lord, pardon me:
Though I am bound to every act of
I am not bound to that all slaves
are free to.
Utter my thoughts? Why, say they
are vile and false;
where's that palace whereinto foul things
intrude not? who has a breast so pure,
some uncleanly apprehensions
Keep leets and law-days and in
With meditations lawful?
This doctrine of universal
imperfection is what could have equipped Othello to survive.
effect comes largely from the randomness with which the handkerchief is
introduced into the action by being dropped. But the more psychologically
minded we are, the less this sense of free contingency is available to us
because Freud’s psychic determinism supplants it. As A. J. Honigmann, editor of
the Arden Othello, puts it, “it is
not clear here whether he or she drops the handkerchief.” If Othello drops it,
he does so because his unconscious is arming Iago with the means to destroy
him; if Desdemona drops it, Othello does the same thing by urging her to “let
it alone” (III,iii, l.293)
vacillates as to whether is it better to know, or not to know, whether one’s
spouse is cheating. This is something like the insistence upon knowing whether
God is “real.” Why do you need to know? Concretely, it might seem pointless to
pray to an empty Heaven or to love an adulteress. But the concrete is already a
problem, even before the evidence is in, because love is supposed to transcend
the facts. For Othello to love Desdemona requires that he tolerate the inherent
uncertainty that comes with embodiment, aware that she could be cheating, but
able to prevent this mere possibility from ending his experience of her.
What should have mattered but did not, in other words, was Othello’s ongoing
experience of Desdemona, rather than his imaginative arrest of her through his
experience of Iago. In the effort to find out who Othello is, it’s worth asking
oneself who Othello is not, by asking
another question: who could have survived Iago’s attack? The answer is:
 This etymology fits with
the commonplace whereby the winds are the breath of God: “Great Jove,” says
Cassio, “Othello guard / And swell his sail with thine own powerful breath…”
(II, i, 77-8). See also John 3:8, “The wind [pneuma] bloweth [pnei]
where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence
it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit [pneuma].
 The impulse to philosophy
for Socrates was wonderment; for Descartes, it is the incapacity to take it on
faith that other people’s bodies have minds inside them.