Read All About It (Part 2)

Commuting days until retirement: 285

You’ll remember, if you have paid me the compliment of reading my previous post, that we started with that crumbling copy of the works of Shakespeare, incongruously finding itself on the moon. I diverged from the debate that I had inherited from my brother and sister-in-law, to discuss what this suggested regarding ‘aboutness’, or intentionality. But now I’m going to get back to what their disagreement was. The specific question at issue was this: was the value – the intrinsic merit we ascribe to the contents of that book – going to be locked within it for all time and all places, or would its value perish with the human race, or indeed wither away as a result of its remote location? More broadly, is value of this sort – literary merit – something absolute and unchangeable, or a quality which exists only in relation to the opinion of certain people?

I went on to distinguish between ‘book’ as physical object in time and space, and ‘book’ regarded as a collection of ideas and their expression in language, and not therefore entirely rooted in any particular spatial or temporal location. It’s the latter, the abstract creation, which we ascribe value to. So immediately it looks as if the location of this particular object is neither here nor there, and and the belief in absolutism gains support. If a work we admire is great regardless of where it is in time or space, and then surely it is great for all times and all places?

But then, in looking at the quality of ‘aboutness’, or intentionality, we concluded that nothing possessed it except by virtue of being created – or understood by – a conscious being such as a human. So, if it can derive intentionality only through the cognition of human beings, it looks as if the same is true for literary merit, and we seem to have landed up in a relativist position. On this view, to assert that something has a certain value is only to express an opinion, my opinion; if you like, it’s more a statement about me than about the work in question. Any idea of absolute literary merit dissolves away, to be replaced by a multitude of statements reflecting only the dispositions of individuals. And of course there may be as many opinions of a piece of work as readers or viewers – and perhaps more, given changes over time. Which isn’t to mention the creator herself or himself; anyone who has ever attempted to write anything with more pretensions than an email or a postcard will know how a writer’s opinion of their own work ricochets feverishly up and down from self-satisfaction to despair.

The dilemma: absolute or relative?

How do we reconcile these two opposed positions, each of which seems to flow from one of the conclusions in Part 1? I want to try and approach this question by way of a small example; I’m going to retrieve our Shakespeare from the moon and pick out a small passage. This is from near the start of Hamlet; it’s the ghost of Hamlet’s father speaking, starting to convey to his son a flavour of the evil that has been done:

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.

This conveys a message very similar to something you’ll have heard quite often if you watch TV news:

This report contains scenes which some viewers may find upsetting.

So which of these two quotes has more literary value? Obviously a somewhat absurd example, since one is a piece of poetry that’s alive with fizzing imagery, and the other a plain statement with no poetic pretensions at all (although I would find it very gratifying if BBC newsreaders tried using the former). The point I want to make is that, in the first place, a passage will qualify as poetry through its use of the techniques we see here – imagery contributing to the subtle rhythm and shape of the passage, culminating in the completely unexpected and almost comical image of the porcupine.

Of course much poetry will try to use these techniques, and opinion will usually vary on how successful it is – on whether the poetry is good, bad or indifferent. And of course each opinion will depend on its owner’s prejudices and previous experiences; there’s a big helping of relativism here. But when it happens that a body of work, like the one I have taken my example from, becomes revered throughout a culture over a long period of time – well, it looks like as if we have something like an absolute quality here. Particularly so, given that the plays have long been popular, even in translation, across many cultures.

Britain’s Royal Shakespeare company has recently been introducing his work to primary school children from the age of five or so, and have found that they respond to it well, despite (or maybe because of) the complex language (a report here). I can vouch for this: one of the reasons I chose the passage I did was that I can remember quoting it to my son when he was around that age, and and he loved it, being particularly taken with the ‘porpentine’.

So when something appeals to young, unprejudiced children, there’s certainly a case for claiming that it reflects the absolute truth about some set of qualities possessed by our race. You may object that I am missing the point of consigning Shakespeare to the moon – that it would be nothing more than a puzzle to some future civilisation, human-descended or otherwise, and therefore of only relative value. Well, in the last post I brought in the example of the forty thousand year old Spanish cave art, which I’ve reproduced again here.

Cave painting

A 40,000 year old cave painting in the El Castillo Cave in Puente Viesgo, Spain (

In looking at this, we are in very much the same position as those future beings who are ignorant of Shakespeare. Here’s something whose meaning is opaque to us, and if we saw it transcribed on to paper we might dismiss it as the random doodlings of a child. But I argued before that there are reasons to suppose it was of immense significance to its creators. And if so, it may represent some absolute truth about them. It’s valuable to us as it was valuable to them – but in admittedly in our case for rather different reasons. But there’s a link – we value it, I’d argue, because they did.  The fact that we are ignorant of what it meant to them does not render it of purely relative value; it goes without saying that there are many absolute truths about the universe of which we are ignorant. And one of them is the significance of that painting for its creators.

We live in a disputatious age, and people are now much more likely to argue that any opinion, however widely held, is merely relative. (Although the view that any opinion is relative sounds suspiciously absolute).  The BBC has a long-running radio programme of which most people will be aware, called Desert Island Discs. After choosing the eight records they would want to have with them on a lonely desert island, and they are invited to select a single book, “apart from Shakespeare and the Bible, which are already provided”. Given this permanent provision, many people find the programme rather quaint and out of touch with the modern age. But of course when the programme began, even more people than now would have chosen one of those items if it were not provided. They have been, if you like, the sacred texts of Western culture, our myths.

A myth, as is often pointed out, is not simply an untrue story, but expresses truth on a deeper level than its surface meaning. Many of Shakespeare’s plots are derived from traditional, myth-like stories, and I don’t need to rehearse here any of what has been said about the truth content of the Bible. It will be objected, of course, that since fewer people would now want these works for their desert island, that there is a strong case for believing that the sacred, or not-so-sacred, status of the works is a purely relative matter. Yes – but only to an extent. There’s no escaping their central position in the history and origins of our culture. Thinking of that crumbling book, as it nestles in the lunar dust, it seems to me that the truths it contains possess – if in a rather different way – some of the absolute truths about the universe that are also to be found in the chemical composition of the dust around it. Maybe those future discoverers will be able to decode one but not the other; but that is a fact about them, and not about the Shakespeare.

(Any comments supporting either absolutism or relativism welcome.)

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