Being: Winter Semester

It rains all the time in the Rhine Valley. Dripping, foggy, penetrating damp, Tag ein Tag aus–you would take the coldest of Vermont winters over this.

At the same time, though, it makes the sun all the more beautiful. You wake up to bright clear skies one morning and skip out on an entire day of studying to walk in the city, and to find out how the stained glass windows in the churches look with sun behind them.

They look glorious, by the way.

IMG_1138

St. Stephanskirche, Mainz

It’s strange, this being in a foreign country. Most of the time it all feels normal, more or less like living at home, but then some little thing happens and the strangeness of it all is brought back to you. Sometimes you go outside in the morning and are shocked that people aren’t speaking your native language. It takes several seconds to remember where you are. You keep forgetting the small things–that lines in the supermarket move 10x faster than they do in America, that no one wants to help you in the clothing store, that you won’t be able to do any banking on Friday afternoons because the German motto is work smarter, not longer.

It’s the different conception of academia that shocks you the most, though. Your university–37,000 students, some 150 institutes–is worlds away from the tiny college you graduated from last spring. Part of it’s good–students in Germany have much more freedom, are treated like adults with the ability to plan their own time and think for themselves. But it’s the apathy that gets you.

For instance: your Herr Dr. Professor–widely published, with his own wikipedia page, applauded by the students at the end of every lecture–is teaching Hamlet. He never smiles in class, seems rather bored by the whole affair. You want to go and shake him at the end of the day and say, “This is a privilege, this! Don’t you see–you are so privileged, so lucky, so blessed to be able to teach this text, to be able to teach at all! The existence of Hamlet is a miracle. The fact that you have a job where you get to read Hamlet every day is also a miracle.”

It’s good, though, too, because you now see what you want to spend the rest of your life fighting against: apathy, boredom, this brand of tired post-modernism that sees the entire world as a deconstruction of a deconstruction of a deconstruction. You want to teach with personality, dammit, in a place where you can sit across the desk from your students and talk about beauty and art like they really matter.

Here in Germany, you have the feeling that the professors think you smile too much in class. But how can one not smile–Hamlet is Hamlet. And apathy aside, it’s good to be here. The cathedrals are still glorious.

Being: Writing Center

still-life-writing-tableStill Life Writing Table, William Michael Harnett

This was supposed to be finished and posted a month ago, while I was still at college, which is of course where this is set. Finals Week and Goethe Institut exams put an end to that. Here ’tis.

~~~~~~

You work at the Writing Center, and you love it.

The place is a little sanctuary in the ancient basement of the Old Union, full of MLA handbooks and half-drunk mugs of coffee and tea. The entire side wall is a blackboard, scrawled with thesis diagrams, pictures of phoenixes, and the usual quotes from Eliot and Shakespeare. Words, words, words. And the Fire and the Rose are one. During Finals’ Week some witty Latinist replaced the diagrams with a line from Virgil’s Aenead: Forsan et haec olim meminisse juvabit. And perhaps someday you will rejoice to remember even this.

You and the other tutors play at being half-psychologist-half-Socrates. You are only allowed to ask questions, absolutely no being “directive,” as the crazy bearded English professor who runs the place informs you. If the students cry on your watch, well then, that is their own fault and not yours. They should have started their papers earlier. He has no pity for criers, nor did he when he himself was an undergrad Writer Center tutor. Things were tough, back in the day.

When it comes to the tutoring sessions, you are quite run-of-the-mill. Tell me what you think about Odysseus, give me a thesis, what do you know about commas, have you considered that your textual evidence is worse than non-existent? Contrary to the English Professor’s creed, you can’t help but feel sorry for the sniffling freshmen on their third all-nighter, twelve hours to go before class and only a half-cocked thesis to go on. You give them tissues, and remind them that they are here to engage in the lofty pursuit of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, not to lose their sanity over a looming C- on a Smith paper. Such a line of argument is rarely successful.

Some of your fellow tutors are more, well, novel in their methods. Daniel manages to terrify every student who signs up for him, even the Honors’ kids, by conducting his sessions perched on the back of a chair while bouncing a tennis ball maniacally off the edge of the table–already balding at the age of 23, bow-tie disheveled, always smelling a little of pipe smoke and whiskey. Somehow he is able to turn each 20-minute session into a monologue on Eucharistic imagery in Hamlet, whether the paper at hand is on Homer or Dante or twentieth-century aestheticism. You and the other tutors are awed and a bit frightened by his ability to do this.

When there are no students, however, you talk. Professors, grad school, Shakespeare Shakespeare Shakespeare. And Eucharistic imagery in Hamlet, of course. Lots of that. You know to stay away from the topic of women in academia, because you don’t want to hear again that your only options are getting married and raising a family. There is always someone being converted to Catholicism outside in the hall. There are always debates on the validity of Cormac McCarthy. One night before Finals’ Week, you all read the Ghost scene aloud. The time is out of joint….oh, that ever I was born to set it right. What was he talking about?

~~~~~~

For the past month, the senior Honors students have been writing their theses. They have taken up the four “cells” at the end of the center, the normally tidy blue rooms with just space to set a laptop. Now they are full of old pizza boxes, pipe tobacco, icons, prayer books, crucifixes, stacks and stacks of books–Elizabethan England, Aesthetics, Bonhoeffer, T.S. Eliot, The Sublime. Someone took the whiteboard markers and drew a hundred pictures of fat cats all over the glass windows. It was probably Karl, who is rather obsessed with cats. The college-aged mind’s innate surrealism never ceases to amaze you.

Travis has the most orderly cell. He, double major in Classics and History, buzzed up on gallons of bad free coffee from the Career Center, is having a FANTASTIC thesis writing experience. He informs everyone of this fact at least six times each evening. He is writing on Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer is AMAZING, EVERYONE should LOVE him, he CAN’T BELIEVE how brilliant he is, isn’t it WONDERFUL to be able to write such a thing as a thesis?? He finishes his final draft a week early. This is hard for the rest of the thesis-writers to stomach.

Daniel takes it particularly hard. Fifty pages behind, in disagreement with his adviser, he has started sitting under his desk because the lowness of the position matches the increasingly-penitential nature of the whole undertaking. He is desperately regretting giving up both cigarettes and beer for Lent. His various mutterings are becoming ever more incoherent.

“Chaos…chaos…why is my brain full of chaos? Why is every paper I write on Hamlet? Chaos, I tell you……”

Rachel, the kindest of the tutors who bakes cookies for the weeping freshmen, is concerned. “Do you want consolation or an answer? Or tea? How about some tea?” But there aren’t any clean mugs left.

He caves the night before his defense and smokes a cigarette, Lent be damned. This prompts an existential crisis the following morning, and a hasty trip to confession. But his defense is brilliant, and you tell him you think he is going to be fine. You are all going to be fine, actually, you say, when you meet in the Center one last time after everything is over, to clean the blackboard and wash a semesters’ worth of stale coffee out of the mugs. You will rejoice at even this. You know because you are already rejoicing.

Zum Spaß: Exams….

Wittenberg University, late 1590s.

Scene: 2:30am. A dark, gothic study hall, a sort of Faustian “dumpfes Mauerloch.” Tall black windows, wooden table with half-burned candles and stacks of parchment. Hamlet and Horatio are pulling an all-nighter for their Philosophy exam the next morning.

Hamlet is the worst study partner imaginable.

Hamlet: (emphatically not studying, staring into space in a metaphysical manner) Words, words, words…..

Silence from Horatio, surrounded by stacks of parchment and dutifully color-coding his notes.

Hamlet: (beginning to chew the end of his quill pen, poetic but unhelpful) When midterms come, they come not single spies but in battalions. (silence) –eh, Horatio?

Horatio: (scribbling furiously) Shut up, Hamlet. Study! Or at least let me study.

(silence)

Hamlet: (struck by an idea, gesturing dramatically) But there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy! Let’s go find some food.

Horatio: (shoving a stack of the 16th-century equivalent of index cards in Hamlet’s direction, exasperated) Yeah, well, we need to get all of the stuff we do know in out heads so we can put it on paper tomorrow. Now come on! Quiz me!

Finis.

______________________

The idea of Hamlet and Horatio cramming for midterms appeared rather hilarious to my roommate and myself very late last night. It’s that time of the semester…..  : )

Any resemblance to various members of the Hillsdale student body is entirely intended.

Dialogue: Cassandra and Hamlet

 

Cassandra was my first literary haunting.

She was a startling creature in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, utterly alone and unlike anything I had ever encountered. She persisted and pervaded, and will never again be far from my consciousness.

I was sixteen, about to start the Tragedy unit in my online Greek and Roman Literature course. My very wise teacher told us nothing about Aeschylus or tragic theory, but merely told us to open our books and read Agamemnon outloud from line one. I played the Trojan seeress, and the power and terror of her words were like a storm.

Who was she? A priestess, the daughter of the king, cursed by Apollo to speak the truth and never be believed. They say she refused to sleep with the god, and he spat in her mouth.

Aeschylus picked up her story after the fall of Troy, with her arrival in Argos as the war-prize of Agamemnon. Of course we all know now what only Cassandra knew then—the tabloid-saga of the queen’s infidelity, her revenge for a slaughtered child, the murder (in the bath!) that awaited the lord of the house and his concubine. Cassandra was wild to speak of all this, wild to be heard by a Chorus that could not believe until it was too late. Her final moments, in the beautiful translation by Robert Fagles, are all poetry and desperate nobility.

Hamlet came two summers later. He was less freakish, funnier–but equally demanding, asking the same sort of insistent questions. His story was much better known: the prince only mad north-northwest, his murdered king and ghost, poisons, players, letters, nunneries. He arrived when my sister and I determined to read Shakespeare until we loved him, and accordingly spent an inordinate amount of time lounging about on the bedroom floor declaiming soliloquies and not doing chores.

Hamlet was our first play, and the night we got that Danish prince, we danced into our parents’ bedroom to tell them that Shakespeare rocked. And that Hamlet rocked most of all, and we had no idea who he was, and we were in love and in hate.

The following autumn I left for Hillsdale College, and heard things that started the conversation between the two characters: a lecture on tragedy in Agamemnon from a recovering feminist one semester, a rambly study of Shakespeare the next. Hamlet and Cassandra, I discovered, had things to say to each other.

I collected quotes, read with both books open side-by-side, and was astounded. They were separated by 2,000 years, and yet so similar! Both were displaced royalty, and crazy, but also the only sane characters in worlds gone mad. Both were defined by otherness, equally tortured by their capacity for thought and knowledge of the truth. And both learned to die with nobility and perhaps a little wisdom.

~~~~~

It was clear that Cassandra and Hamlet moved in worlds dictated by Fate, or Moira to the Greeks. This Fate was the merciless, faceless entity that hemmed in the edges of the Tragic universe, that dictated that the human condition be full of unjustified sorrow and suffering. In such a world, the measure of a man was in how he responded to such a destiny, whether with truth and nobility or with fear and evasion.

But who could blame Cassandra and Hamlet, really, if their first response was all horror? The seeress’ scream “The agony—O I am breaking!—Fate’s so hard, and the pain that floods my voice is mine alone” (1138-9) echoed in Hamlet’s “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right” (I.5.191). They were young, and life could have been so easy.

There was evasion in the beginning, too. Wouldn’t it have been much pleasanter, neater, to cheat such a cruel lot? To find an easier way out? Indeed—and so Hamlet toyed with suicide and not-to-be, and Cassandra turned to songbirds.

The Nightingale—O for a song, a fate like hers!

The gods gave her a life of ease, swathed her in wings, no tears, no wailing. (1148-9)

Flight was desperately attractive.

But something changed before the end, because Hamlet didn’t kill himself, and Cassandra remained human. By their final scenes both had replaced evasion with readiness, the desire to flee with the understanding necessary to let be. In the end, they told us, it really wasn’t a matter of escape, of flight into madness or suicide, but of facing the human condition open-eyed, with dignity, compassion, and humanity.

It was the harder course, this lucid encounter with Fate, but one fulfilled with ultimate grace. With heartbreaking eloquence, Hamlet drew his conclusions in his penultimate scene: He was finished playing with a bare dagger. The decision for life or death would no longer be his hands. Horatio would not lie and excuse him from the duel.

Not a whit, we defy augury. There is special

providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now,

‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be

now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness

is all. Since no man knows aught of what he leaves,

what is it to leave betimes? Let be. (V.2.196)

Cassandra, too, turned her back on evasion and hysteria moments before her death. “My time has come,” she informed the deluded Chorus. “Little to gain from flight” (1324). Like Hamlet, she was no longer willing to cheat her way out. She would face whatever might come with sanity, standing upright.

~~~~~

These resolutions were vital, because death was suddenly the here and now. The readiness gained in their final scenes enabled Cassandra and Hamlet to face their own mortality with clarity and truth.

It would have been easy to lie, because everyone else did. The chorus wanted something glorious, and so smelled Syrian myrrh instead of the reek of blood. But Cassandra was explicit, urgent, clear-headed: “No escape, my friends…. I must go in now, mourning Agamemnon’s death and mine” (1324 and 1335). Two millennia later, Claudius wanted his propriety, and so extended the farce till the moment of his death (“Help me friends, I am but hurt!” (V.2.307)). But Hamlet said simply “I die, Horatio” (V.2.316, 321, 335).  Like Cassandra, he met the tragedy of his own death with the dignity and awareness that none of the other characters were able to achieve. All madness, affected or genuine, fell away at last.

 ~~~~~

One more question, because one must always ask. What about immortality—did either really hope for a blessed afterlife? I couldn’t find that they did. Hamlet spoke of “the dread of something after death” (III.1.78), and the rest, after all, was silence. Cassandra cried on the steps of the palace.

Oh men, your destiny.

When all is well a shadow can overturn it.

When trouble comes a stroke of the wet sponge,

And the picture’s blotted out. And that,

I think that breaks the heart. (1350-1355)

But in a way, Cassandra and Hamlet lived on. Perhaps it was their very doubt of a neat metaphysical solution that compelled them to so purposefully leave something behind. In so doing, they engendered the writing of their own dramas.

Thus Hamlet to Horatio, in his final moments: “Absent thee from felicity awhile, and in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain to tell my story” (V.2.331). He would offer his tale to a shocked court, and seek to prevent such “carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts” from happening again (V.2.364).

Cassandra, too, turned from sorrow to speak to a frightened Chorus: “No more riddles. I will teach you. Come, bear witness, run and hunt with me” (1183). Her final words echoed Hamlet’s:

Friends—I cried out,

not from fear like a bird fresh caught,

but that you will testify to how I died

That’s all I ask, my friends. A stranger’s gift

for one about to die. (1338-43)

Her death would become part of the Oresteia, to be remembered again with Orestes’ return, with the queen’s death, with the revenge of the man married to grief. As Hamlet was a prince and actor, she was a seeress—and in the face of the greatest personal tragedy gave away her story to the yet-unknowing world.

~~~~~

So there it is. In Tragedy, death is not a private event, but reflects individual character and becomes a measure of human capability and potential—ugliness and fear for some, wisdom and greatness for others. As the chorus in Agamemnon says, “to go nobly lends a man some grace” (1327). Cassandra and Hamlet found that grace, and the wisdom it granted, in life and in death.

In the end, perhaps what separates the two is aloneness. However estranged he may be, Hamlet is surrounded by familiarity, by those who have known and maybe tried to understand him from childhood. He is a part of his society, whether he likes it or not. After all, he would have been king, without the poison-and-treachery business—and even in the end, he will be buried like a prince and remembered as one.

But what about Cassandra? She was uprooted, kept alive only because she was young and attractive enough to tempt a hero, born away from an immolated city on the chariot of her captor. She had no players to set traps, no Horatio to keep her confidences—in fact, no one had ever believed her, before or after Troy. Her father was murdered on the altar of Zeus, her god cursed her. And now, in Argos, there was literally nothing left.

Of all the finely drawn women in Classical literature, perhaps Cassandra is the most alone. So many of the others—and this is an observation, not an agenda—are bound and remembered by their relation to others, to men. Dido is eternally burning on her lover’s bed, Andromache holding her child and weeping over Hector’s plumed helmet. Penelope waits for her family, Psyche chases after Cupid.

How strikingly does Aeschylus’ portrait of Cassandra differ—she is forever alone, sapling straight, silhouetted against the open palace doors. In her final moments she is not Agamemnon’s war-prize or even the daughter of Priam. She has only truth, and is only herself, and maybe that is why she can speak for us all.

Zeus has led us on to know,

the Helmsman lays it down as law

that we must suffer, suffer into truth.

We cannot sleep, and drop by drop at the heart

the pain of pain remembered comes again,

and we resist, but ripeness comes as well.

From the gods enthroned on the awesome rowing-bench

there comes a violent love.

Agamemnon, first Chorus 177-184


Yes, I know I said no footnotes. But I should say that I am most grateful to Dr. Deborah Belt for laying the foundations of these ideas. The concept of the tragic worldview belongs to her.  

The picture of Cassandra and the quotes from Aeschylus are from my Penguin edition of the Oresteia, trans. Robert Fagles (Penguin Group 1979).  The painting of Hamlet  is by William Hunt, 1864. The video is, of course, from Kenneth Branagh’s version of Hamlet, the Shakespeare quotes from The Pelican Shakespeare ed. A. R. Braunmuller (Penguin Group 2001).

Also, for those interested in further reading, I find most fitting that a writer like Christa Wolf should again take up the seeress’ story, in 1984, for her outcry against the oppression of women and censorship in East Germany. Her Kassandra  is a beautiful addition to the mythos, I think.