Hamlet’s Ghost in 2020

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Of Fathers and Sons

Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, many a son is driven mad by a father’s ghost. Although most of our fathers were not murdered, as was Hamlet’s, our fathers whisper through the air long after they have ceased to be. We hear a voice that defies us to be as big as they or to exceed their stature, or to fill the void of emptiness and their sense of shame and shortcomings they took to the grave, or to find the love they withheld from us as children. A father’s ghost sometimes drives a son mad.

Hamlet tries to show his mother Gertrude his father’s ghost (artist: Nicolai A. Abildgaard, c. 1778).

We are our father’s sons.  Appearances to the contrary, madness is never far away. 

“That he is mad, ’tis true; ’tis true ’tis pity;
And pity ’tis ’tis true —a foolish figure….”
— Plutonius to Queen Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother.
(William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2.)

The healthier sons among us still see our father’s ghost without being stuck in a room where his is the only voice that keeps us captive. We write a wider narrative that puts the father’s ghost where it belongs within the expanding narrative to which experience over time leads us to write. The less fortunate walk through life in “the hollow inner space where the story should be, but never was.” (Dan P. McAdams, The Strange Case of Donald J. Trump.)

The hollow inner space where the story should be

People without a redemptive narrative of the self — a life-story written in one’s own blood: the defeats no less than the successes, the release from the father’s ghost, the changes that unmute the helpless child’s cry for love and integrate the conscious changes that awake us from sleep-walking — deserve our pity and prayers. 

A truly authentic fake

“Trump is always acting, always on stage,” writes McAdam, “— but that is who he really is, and that is all he really is. He is not introspective, retrospective or prospective. He does not go deep into his mind; he does not travel back to the past; he does not project far into the future. He is always on the surface, always right now.

“In his own mind, he is more like a persona than a person, more like a primal force or superhero, rather than a fully realized human being.”

Glitter and compassion

Hamlet mistakenly stabs Polonius (Artist: Coke Smyth, 19th century).

Long before the chairs and drapes in the Oval Office were glittered with yellow-gold, Edgar Alan Poe wrote in his Philosophy of Furniture, “Glitter — and in that one word how much of all that is detestable do we express.”

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a tragedy too detestable to express: a trail of tears created by a son’s inability to write a narrative that integrates and moves beyond obsession with his father’s ghost.

The hollow inner spaces of others bring a tear to God’s eye, and call us to compassion in hopes that a new narrative of redemption. Truly authentic fakes who hide their emptiness with glitter deserve our pity and our prayers. They do not deserve applause or votes.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 21, 2020. 

The Art of the Deal with the Devil

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The Faustian Bargain

The daily White House updates on the coronavirus pandemic bring to mind the Medieval folklore of Faust’s bargain with Mephistopheles (the devil). Faust surrenders his soul for the diabolical blessings of wealth, power, and fame.

Dr. Fauci, Dr. Trump, and Dr. Birx

We see and hear POTUS Donald Trump; then we see and hear Dr. Fauci, and Dr. Birx. Two of three have M.D. degrees required to diagnose and dispense medication. The other has no degree and no license to practice medicine but repeatedly ignores and contradicts Dr. Birx and Dr. Fauci.

Yesterday’s White House update (April 23) offers the latest conflict between knowledge and what seems like insanity. The president referred to “emerging” research showing that the increased sunlight and higher humidity of spring and summer kill the virus. Past studies have not found good evidence to support the theory. But that’s not the worst of it.

Noting unidentified research into the effects of disinfectants on killing the virus, the president went further off the rails by wondering aloud whether a disinfectant could be injected into people because the virus “does a tremendous number on the lungs, so it would be interesting to check that.” Where is Sigmund Freud when we need him?

Sigmund Freud’s Case Study in Demonic Neurosis

We are children of the Enlightenment. Few of us believe in real life Faustian bargains with the Devil. But Sigmund Freud became intrigued by Johann Christoph Haizmann (1651-1700), a Bavarian-born Austrian painter, after reading Haizmann’s newly recovered narrative description (L) and triptych painting (below) of his Faustian bargain.

Haizmann’s personal description of his experience became the occasion for Sigmund Freud’s and Gaston Vandendriessche’s research on “the Haizmann case” became a part of the study of psychology and psychiatry.

photograph of triptych by Johann Christoph Haizmann
Votive triptych by Johann Christoph Haizmann’s (1651/52 – 14 March 1700). Left: Satan is depicted as a fine burgher, while Haizmann signs a pact with ink. Right: The Devil reappears a year later and forces Haizmann to sign another pact with his own blood. Middle: The Virgin Mary makes the Devil return the second pact during an exorcism.

The Burgher and the Deal with the Devil

Of interest to us here is Haizmann’s depiction of the Devil as “a fine burgher” in the left panel of Haizmann’s triptych. ‘Burgher’ was a title of the medieval a privileged social class. Public officials were drawn from among the burgher class of medieval towns and cities. Haizmann’s choice of a burgher as the Devil in disguise is its own repudiation of wealth, privilege, and power. Only the Virgin Mary could free him from the pact with the Devil.

Freud de-mythologized the religious language and metaphors by which Haizmann had understood himself and his world. In 2020 only a quack would speak of demonic possession! Yet the biblical pictures of demonic possession still have a way of reaching parts of us we cannot explain or escape. Every one of us is a little insane at night, or locked in during the coronavirus pandemic. Few of us keep our twitter feeds on the pillow to push away the darkness. Few of us belong go the burgher class, yet there is something about Donald Trump that was with us before is election and will remain with us after he is gone: the age-old demonic dreams of wealth, privilege, and power.

We speak of neuroses and psychoses instead of demons or the devil the way Haizmann did. But still, there is the haunting memory of King Saul dropping into the abyss of insanity, throwing his spear at David, and the man who had been possessed by the Legion of demons before Jesus asked his name and sent them into the herd of swine. What is happening to us in America defies rational explanation. How does it happen that we allow a soul-less burgher who imagines injecting Lysol into our veins to take the world stage with Dr. Birx and Dr. Fauci?

The Art of the Deal and the Deal with the Devil

The Art of the Deal put Donald Trump on the world stage. Art of the Deal is an autobiography. But it’s not. According to the publisher and the book’s ghost writer, Tony Schwartz, Mr. Trump never wrote a line, but continues to say he was he author. Now that the coronavirus has shut down the economy he tricks himself into being a doctor who always knows best.

By way of contrast, Johan Christoph Haizmann, relieved from the frantic need for the burghers’ recognition. He joined the Brothers Hospitallers of Saint John of God, aka, the Brothers of Mercy to spend the rest of his life serving the poor, and the sick of body and mind.

Manuel Gómez-Moreno González: San Juan de Dios salvando a los enfermos de incendio del Hospital Real (English: Saint John of God saving the sick from fire at the Royal Hospital)

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, host of Views from the Edge: to See More Clearly, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR), Chaska, MN, April 24, 2020.