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 “Tragedy” of Sandy Hook

macbethIf philosophical parsing of the meaning of Sandy Hook was inappropriate just a few days ago, it is mandatory now.

The slaughter of these dear little ones and their teachers was a moment of terrible and terrifying insanity. When Adam put on his body armor and turned his mother’s guns on his own mother and Sandy Hook, insanity broke out to bring grief that chilled the bones of everyone in America.

Today there are calls for gun control and mental health services, and those calls make perfect sense as practical responses, but they will not fix the problem.

There is a more profound collective insanity that pervades our culture and our nation. It’s a tragedy in the sense of the old Greek and Shakespearean theater: a fatal flaw that is doing us in.

Sandy Hook was the latest symptom of the American tragedy: our worship of safety – arming ourselves to the nines – turns out to the death of us.  The idolatry of safety is the worship of death itself.

A five year old boy in Minneapolis is playing with his two-year-old brother in their parents’ bedroom. He finds a loaded pistol under their father’s pillow, points it at his brother as one would point a toy gun. His brother is dead. The surviving five-year-old and his parents will never be the same – because a father sought to keep his family safe with the pistol under his pillow.

A mother in Newtown has guns in the home she shares with the disturbed son she loves and seeks to protect from a cruel world. Like so many others in America, the guns were purchased either for safety or for sport, but the results are the antitheses of safety or fun.

Whether in our bedroom at home or in the nation’s Capitol, when the insurance of safety rises to the top of the pyramid of values, death ascends as the power that destroys, the fatal flaw in a natural human instinct toward safety and security.

Freedom and safety are basic human needs. They are American values. Each is important. But neither freedom nor safety is God. Neither one is worthy of enshrinement by itself, and the two of them mixed together make for a Molotov cocktail thrown back into our own bedrooms, at the Sandy Hook Elementary School, Baghdad, and anywhere else that the concern for safety releases the tragic flaw of the Greek theater, Shakespeare, and the American theatre of the absurd.

Pieta - Michaelangelo

Pieta – Michaelangelo