The Pathos of Angst

‘I have my books

And my poetry to protect me;

I am shielded in my armour,

Hiding in my room; safe within my womb

I touch no-one and no-one touches me

I am a rock

I am an island

And a rock feels no pain

And an island never cries’

I am a Rock’: lyric as sung by Simon and Garfunkel

There is a poem by Robert Burns which is like this lyric hereabove written in the early days of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. If anything it is more extreme in its pain and bitterness – so much so that it can be seen in the same light as some of Thomas Hardy’s more dolorous novels (‘Jude the Obscure’, ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’) – that is of being what we call today ‘over the top’ and badly self-parodying.

The standard joke about this overlarding the cake is George Bernard Shaw’s who said of Dickens’ sentimentality in his novel ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’

That person is inhuman who is unable to laugh at the death of Little Nell’

Here is Burns’ ‘I hae a Wife o’ my Ain’

I hae a wife o’ my ain,
I’ll partake wi’ naebody:
I’ll take cuckold frae nane,
I’ll gae cuckold to naebody.

I hae a penny to spend,
There – thanks to naebody!
I hae naething to lend,
I’ll borrow frae naebody.

I am naebody’s lord,
I’ll be slave to naebody.
I hae a guid braid sword,
I’ll tak dunts frae naebody.

I’ll be merry and free,
I’ll be sad for naebody,
Naebody cares for me,
I care for naebody. 

There is on an early Leonard Cohen album recording a track where he sings out to a fade, by repeating a lamenting wordless cri de Coeur. Just at the moment his final repetition is very remotely heard his voice enters into hysteria; so much so that the quasi-agonised effect produced is almost ludicrous because it has overstepped the bounds of appropriate due measure and entered into self parody yet again

But Paul Simon, who I believe is responsible for this lyric, in ‘I am a Rock’ hits the nail dead centre with just the right pressure and attack, so as to communicate real feeling – in an imaginative and sympathetic tour de force.

In Shakespeare Queen Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother is criticised by Hamlet for her protestations and her agonising over events. He uses a phrase that has entered the language since:

‘The lady dost protest too much methinks’

This is a sharp observation, and psychologically hits the bell. The whole of Hamlet can be seen as a play about seeming and reality: Hamlet’s first words to Gertrude are spoken in reply to her after she has assured him everyone at court feels grief for his recently dead father, but that they realise collectively at the same time that they must put on a show of ‘keeping calm and carrying on’ for the sake of appearances. Hamlet replies to her:

‘I know not seems madam’ (see article)

Gertrude is marked up then as being more interested in show than in fact, and Hamlet’s observation on her protestations detects the note of falsity and inauthenticity in her grief. Too much protestation casts doubt on one’s sincerity.  Hence Hardy and Cohen and maybe Burns cast a slight comic gloze over their productions described above by using over-extreme histrionics.

Shakespeare himself, in the same tragic masterpiece (Hamlet) offers via the mouthpiece of Hamlet himself, in the scene when the Touring Players come to Elsinore to perform, some performance advice which sounds very much like it was advice close to Shakespeare’s own heart: It is worth quoting (and studying) in full:

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue. But if you mouth it, as many of our players do, I had as lief the town crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently, for in the very torrent, tempest, and (as I may say) whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness. O, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise. I would have such a fellow whipped for o’erdoing Termagant. It out-herods Herod. Pray you avoid it. Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. Now this overdone, or come tardy off, though it make the unskillful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve, the censure of the which one must in your allowance o’erweigh a whole theatre of others. O, there be players that I have seen play, and heard others praise, and that highly (not to speak profanely), that neither having th’ accent of Christians, nor the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have so strutted and bellowed that I have thought some of Nature’s journeymen had made men, and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably. Reform it altogether! And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them, for there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the mean time some necessary question of the play be then to be considered. That’s villainous and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it. Go make you ready.

The centre of this monologue; its very heart, is the likeness of the lyrical and the dramatic arts to ‘a mirror’ held up to nature, so as to ‘to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image’.  It’s about telling the truth.  Too much overblown protestation is a lie and a failure; too little is a lie and a dismal failure. Like Goldilocks’ porridge, it has to be ‘just right’.

And when it is ‘just right’ and it hits the bell inside us, we are alerted, moved, shaken and aroused; and we acknowledge in response that it is apposite truth we have connected with.

The skill in ascertaining this appositeness, this appropriateness, is in the judgement one makes within oneself as one envisages imaginatively the thing for description and portrayal.  The great (and somewhat neglected) Ben Jonson wrote in his ‘To the Reader’ (preface0 which heads up perhaps his finest drama ‘The Alchemist’:


If thou beest more, thou art an understander, and then I trust thee. If thou art one that takest up, and but a pretender, beware of what hands thou receivest thy commodity; for thou wert never more fair in the way to be cozened, than in this age, in poetry, especially in plays: wherein, now the concupiscence of dances and of antics so reigneth, as to run away from nature, and be afraid of her, is the only point of art that tickles the spectators. But how out of purpose, and place, do I name art? When the professors are grown so obstinate contemners of it, and presumers on their own naturals, as they are deriders of all diligence that way, and, by simple mocking at the terms, when they understand not the things, think to get off wittily with their ignorance. Nay, they are esteemed the more learned, and sufficient for this, by the many, through their excellent vice of judgment. For they commend writers, as they do fencers or wrestlers; who if they come in robustuously, and put for it with a great deal of violence, are received for the braver fellows: when many times their own rudeness is the cause of their disgrace, and a little touch of their adversary gives all that boisterous force the foil. I deny not, but that these men, who always seek to do more than enough, may some time happen on some thing that is good, and great; but very seldom; and when it comes it doth not recompense the rest of their ill. It sticks out, perhaps, and is more eminent, because all is sordid and vile about it: as lights are more discerned in a thick darkness, than a faint shadow. I speak not this, out of a hope to do good to any man against his will; for I know, if it were put to the question of theirs and mine, the worse would find more suffrages: because the most favour common errors. But I give thee this warning, that there is a great difference between those, that, to gain the opinion of copy, utter all they can, however unfitly; and those that use election and a mean. For it is only the disease of the unskilful, to think rude things greater than polished; or scattered more numerous than composed.

But is this merely and only all about art and writing? Has it no other and practical  use in our daily living?  Ben Jonson again:

Language most shows a man: Speak, that I may see thee. It springs out of the most retired and inmost parts of us, and is the image of the parent of it, the mind. No glass renders a man’s form or likeness so true as his speech. Nay, it is likened to a man; and as we consider feature and composition in a man, so words in language; in the greatness, aptness, sound structure, and harmony of it

And T S Eliot more recently felt assured that:

“Though we may read literature merely for pleasure, of ‘entertainment’ or of ‘aesthetic enjoyment’, this reading never affects simply a sort of special sense: it affects us as entire human beings; it affects our moral and religious existence.’

There is little doubt in my mind that as our anatomical matter inevitably is made up of what food we have eaten; so our mental consciousness is made up of what we have heard, seen, read, and imbibed through our senses. In this way we are what we eat and likewise we are whom we craft ourselves to be out of the exercise of our volition on the aggregate of our meditations upon that data our minds have consumed and sifted.

And so without doubt, handsome is as handsome does; and we do actions in our lives according to what we consider appropriate to do; fitting to what we have sifted as being useful and valuable; and this makes us either working towards goodness or towards indifference or towards evil.  I have a firm faith that it will all be sorted in the wash; and the judgement.

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