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Tolstoy, Orwell and the Tao of Shakespeare

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Tolstoy described Shakespeare as a a writer entirely without merit, one of the worst and most contemptible writers the world has ever seen. Orwell suggests that Tolstoy was wrong. I compare Shakespeare to the Tao.
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  Page 1 of 4Tolstoy & Shakespeare.rtf09.10.28 8:12 PM Tolstoy, Orwell and the Tao of Shakespeare – a comment by Guy A. DuperreaultI've been flipping through Orwell's The Collected Essays, Journalism & Letters of George Orwell V2 and came across the laconic and amusingly ambivalent defense of he made against Tolstoy's splenetic dismissal of Shakespeare. Orwell paraphrasesTolstoy's attact as: ... purporting to show not only that Shakespeare was not the great man hewas claimed to be, but that he was a writer entirely without merit, one ofthe worst and most contemptible writers the world has ever seen (154). (A quick Yahoo found Tolstoy's article transcribed and in English, on Scribd!)Now I can't say that I am a big fan of Tolstoy because I am not. Not at all. But still I findthis interesting, and also interesting that neither this item nor Orwell's bemusingresponse was ever alluded to, let alone discussed in my Shakespeare classes.On the other hand, I've always been a fan of Orwell's writing and his paraphrase of Tolstoy's argument is far more entertaining than is Tolstoy's heavy handed writing. For example, Orwell summarizes Tolstoy's position as follows: Tolstoy's main contention is that Shakespeare is a trivial, shallow writer, withno coherent philosophy, no thoughts or ideas worth bothering about, nointerest in social or religious problems, no grasp of character or probability,and, in so far as he could be said to have a definable attitude at all, with acynical, immoral, worldly outlook on life. He accuses him of patching hisplays together without caring twopence for credibility, of dealing infantastic fables and impossible situations, of making his characters talk in anartificial flowery language completely unlike that of real life. He alsoaccuses him of thrusting anything and everything into his plays — soliloquies,scraps of ballads, discussions, vulgar jokes and so forth — without stoppingto think whether they had anything to do with the plot, and also of taking forgranted the immoral power politics and unjust social distinctions of thetimes he lived in. Briefly, he accuses him [of] being a hasty, slovenly writer, aman of doubtful morals, and above all, of not being a thinker (154). Ouch!Okay, okay, this didn't hurt me at all. But it strongly suggests why I do not care for Tolstoy's writing. What I mean is that Tolstoy's polemic is a list of those things inShakespeare's writing that makes it live and breath — as its longevity argues. In everyway, even with the poetical nature of his language, Shakespeare brings to the stage acompressed but startlingly precise and vibrant snapshot of the simplicity and  Page 2 of 4Tolstoy & Shakespeare.rtf09.10.28 8:12 PM complexity of what comprises being human in the physical world. Despite our intellectual fascination with morality and moralistic fascination with purity, life is acomplicated expression of the profane and the sacred, the prosaic and the existential,the beautiful and the foul — that is what comprises capital 'L' life and that 'is-ness'cannot be intellectualized away. Shakespeare's language, characters, and situations,whether historical or magical, express all capital 'L' life because, despite our childishpining for singular truth and pure beauty, our lives are filled with scraps from hither andyon, the fantastical and mundane. Tolstoy's writing, what little I have struggled through,anyway, is heavily laced with what he thinks a meaningful, i.e. moral, life 'should' becomprised of, not that with which capital 'L' Life actually is.In his way, Orwell supplies a similar kind of rebuttal to Tolstoy's rant as this, but in amore convoluted manner. Or maybe it is a simpler one!? Anyway, Orwell wrote that One must conclude that there is something good — something durable —in Shakespeare which millions of ordinary people can appreciate, thoughTolstoy happened to be unable to do so. [Shakespeare] can surviveexposure of the fact that he is a confused thinker whose plays are full ofimprobabilities. He can no more be debunked by such methods than youcan destroy a flower by preaching a sermon at it (156-7). Orwell is most amusing here, because even as he puts down Shakespeare as a'confused thinker,' he himself uses a similar poetical metaphor as Shakespeare toargue its long-lived appeal — nature, natural Life, trumps intellectual morality.While thinking and writing the above, I had the great joy of experiencing a delightful fushigi  , (Japanese for wondrous event). I stumbled across a delightful, almost identicalargument to Orwell's and mine, albeit couched in the Zen language of D.T. Suzuki inhis book Zen and Japanese Culture: There is a famous saying by one of the earlier masters of the T'ang dynasty,which declares that the Tao is no more than one's everyday lifeexperience. When the master was asked what he meant by this, he replied, When you are hungry you eat, when are are thirsty you drink, when youmeet a friend you greet him. This, some may think, is no more than animal instinct or social usage, and thereis nothing that may be called moral, much less spiritual, in it. If we call it the Tao,some may think, what a cheap thing the Tao is after all!  Those who have not penetrated into the depths of our consciousness,including both the conscious and unconscious, are liable to hold such amistaken notion as the one just cited. But we must remember that, if the Taois something highly abstract transcending daily experiences, it will havenothing to do with the actualities of life. Life as we live it is not concerned  Page 3 of 4Tolstoy & Shakespeare.rtf09.10.28 8:12 PM with [intellectual or moral] generalization. If it were, the intellect would beeverything, and the philosopher would be the wisest man. But, asKierkegaard points out, the philosopher builds a fine palace, but he isdoomed not to live in it — he has a shed for himself next door to what heconstructed for others, including himself, to look at....The Tao is really very much more than mere animal instinct and socialusage, though those elements are also included in it. It is something deeplyimbedded in every one of us, indeed in all beings sentient and non-sentient,and it requires something altogether different from so-called scientificanalysis.   It defies our intellectual pursuit because of being too concrete, toofamiliar, hence beyond definability. It is there confronting us, no doubt, but not obtrusively and threateningly, like Mount Everest to the mountain-climbers (11-2— my emphasis ).Is not Suzuki's Mt. Evererst analogy exactly identical to Orwell's with the flower? Naturetrumps intellect! That is the key to the long-lived vitality of Shakespeare's writing — itembodies the natural world of man more fully than perhaps any other writer in English.This is what Tolstoy's long rant is about, the head feeling left out of living text. And withthat thought, how similar is Tolstoy's list of failures to that of the contention that the Tao,to those who who lack depth of understanding of life, is nothing more than cheapanimal instinct or unreflective acquiescence to societal mores.Shakespeare looked into the world of social without any sort of intellectualized or moralistic or religio-philosophic self-deception or delusion, by which manner hecompassed the heart of man even as he talked directly to it. His clarity of sight unitedwith the brilliance of his writing to effectively, meaning-fully, by-pass the intellect. Thisis likely why Tolstoy wrote Bill off as 'contemptible'. Tolstoy, Orwell, and other greatthinkers who put thinking as the sine qua non of being man, are unable to see thesophistication of thought required to not be bamboozled by the bright lights of intellectual achievement, or moralistic sentimentality.There are many examples of writing of the kind I am describing here. For example, inHenry V when Hal disguises himself as a foot soldier and engages in a quiet, powerfuldiscussion on the meaning of death as a soldier (4.1). And these gems show up in thesilliest of comedies, for example when Luciana pleads on behalf of her sister inComedy of Errors (3.2). The examples are endless, but most broadly is how he wrote,throughout his works, fully realized and embodied women. His women are neither idealized nor vilified even when the characters are good, bad, sexual, prudish, silly,strong, emancipated or kept — and in his plays they are all these things and more. Oh!And Shakespeare was an equal opportunity guy, for the men are equally treated.If I was going to spend the rest of my days on an island, and was stuck reading oneauthor, I can assure you it would not be Tolstoy. Nor would it be Orwell. It would be  Page 4 of 4Tolstoy & Shakespeare.rtf09.10.28 8:12 PM Shakespeare, because his writing is the way of life — Tao.
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