MOTTO: Know you not that I must be about my mother's business

  • INQUEST (The Inquiry into the Quaternary
    Evolution in Shakespearean Thought
    ) will
    critique scientists, philosophers and commentators
    who have failed to appreciate the philosophy in
    Shakespeare's Sonnets, poems and plays.

    The Institute for the Quaternary Evolution in Shakespearen Thought
    The Quaternary Institute
    Quaternary Institute & Quaternary Imprint



    Roger Peters Copyright © 2005


    The first edition of the 4 volume set William Shakespeare's Sonnet Philosophy [2005] is still available.


    Inquiry into the Quaternary Evolution in Shakespearean Thought

    Joyce & Eliot - Which Myth

    Although the worldviews of T. S. Eliot and James Joyce differed profoundly, they were united in their misunderstanding of the logic of mythic expression. Eliot’s lifelong commitment to a single mythology and Joyce’s increasing need to accommodate all mythologies were of no avail when they attempted to understand the mythic logic of Shakespeare’s works. While both Eliot and Joyce drew on the works of Shakespeare for inspiration and evaluation, their individual trajectories reveal attitudes at odds with the mythic logic articulated in his Sonnets. Their works exemplify opposing approaches to mythology that the Sonnet logic rejects and transcends.

    The singular approach of T. S. Eliot

    Throughout his career T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) rarely strayed from the influence of his Christian upbringing. He was raised a Unitarian and made a formal commitment to the Church of England in 1927.
          Eliot’s unswerving commitment to the tradition of Judeo/Christian learning and ‘advancement’ as he called it meant that when he attempted to include other mythologies within his poetry he was unable to write with coherence and purpose. Even before he reaffirmed his Christian faith in 1927, his attitude toward other mythologies was largely formal or at best experimental, as with the use of Indian mythology in the Wasteland. His ad hoc interest in other belief systems resulted in poems of barely coherent parts.
          Paradoxically, Eliot’s most significant early achievement was his least overtly Christian poem, the Wasteland. And the added irony is that the poem owes its formal strength to the editorial intervention of Ezra Pound. Pound reduced Eliot’s repetitious and infelicitous manuscript by over half. His intervention drew attention to the disjunction between Eliot’s evident craftsmanship and his lack of a logical system to regulate his ideas.
          Although Eliot’s later poetry and plays are more faithfully Christian in their psychology, their intellectual disingenuousness makes them little more than apologia for his faith, or the offerings of a troubled mind for troubled minds. Eliot sublimated his anxiety within his poetics and in his prose critiques of art and society. In a twist of fate, he was instrumental in consigning his wife to an asylum when by some accounts she was sane enough to question his pretences.
          When, in Notes Toward the Definition of Culture, Eliot debates the relation between culture and religion, he uses the opportunity to justify his recommitment to a traditional belief. He says he does not believe that the ‘culture of Europe could survive the complete disappearance of the Christian faith’ because ‘if Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes’. (1) Because he believes religion is ‘incarnated’ (2) in a culture, he cannot see how a culture could survive without Christianity. Yet he admits that his way of ‘looking at culture and religion’ allows him to ‘grasp’ the connections only in ‘flashes’. (3) And he guilelessly confesses that ‘religion…gives apparent meaning to life’ by providing a fortuitous ‘frame-work’ to protect the ‘mass of humanity from boredom and despair’. (4)
          Eliot’s recognition that the Christian faith fulfils a psychological role in a culture, especially as Christianity has lost its capacity to be identified with the culture as a whole, is consistent with his lack of insight into mythic logic. If he had understood Shakespeare’s Sonnets, and hence the mythic philosophy behind the plays and poems, he would have appreciated the logical connection between religion and culture beyond the particular manifestation of the mythic in a religion like Christianity.

    Eliot and Shakespeare

    In his Introduction to Wilson Knight’s Wheels of Fire, Eliot reveals his ambivalence toward Shakespeare. While he frequently acknowledges Shakespeare’s ‘great poetry’ he also exhibits a deep antipathy toward a poet he dismisses as having ‘no philosophy’ and whose works have ‘no design on the amelioration of behaviour’. (5) The irony is that until Eliot reaffirmed his Christianity, his poems had no systematic pattern, and after his recommitment they still lacked logical or moral coherence.
          In the Introduction, Eliot avails himself of the opportunity to compare Shakespeare with Dante. Even though he acknowledges Shakespeare’s complexity and depth, he much prefers the Christian ‘philosophy’ of Dante’s Divine Comedy, with its moral rewards and retributions in ‘hell’, ‘purgatory’ or ‘paradise’. Shakespeare seems by contrast to have only a ‘rag-bag philosophy’ (6) derived at random from his sources, and he ‘elaborated’ no system of ‘morality’.
          Yet, the gratuitousness of Dante’s moral system does not seem to bother Eliot. After all Dante grants himself and his childhood sweetheart Beatrice unconditional entry to paradise, he consigns the ‘pagan’ poet Virgil to purgatory, and while there encounters a colleague who he saved from hell by procuring a last minute extreme unction. Eliot finds it difficult to understand how Dante’s ‘superior’ Christian moral system is ‘discounted’ by ‘interpreters’, while Shakespeare’s works are looked to for moral guidance. Not only does Eliot disparage Shakespeare’s worth, he believes there is a philosophical pattern and moral system in biblical mythology despite the devastating critique of its claims by scientists and philosophers over the last few centuries.
          However, the psychology of belief, with which Eliot assuaged his anxious mind, provides no substitute in the twentieth century for a critical awareness of the logical relationship of the mind and nature. Eliot’s late Christian play, Murder in the Cathedral, is an anthem for his failure to achieve a coherent world-view.

    The ‘monomythic’ ambitions of Joyce

    In his early works, James Joyce (1882-1941) graduated from the youthful idealism of his Stephen Hero, to self-awareness as an artist in the Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Then, once he achieved a perspective on his youthful idealism, he set out in Ulysses to write a modern myth for Dublin by duplicating the mythical journey of Odysseus. The achievement of Ulysses led then, at least in Joyce’s mind, to the need to write the encyclopedic history of myth, or the ‘monomyth’ that became Finnegan’s Wake.
          Joyce’s early development from autobiography to critical self-awareness was achieved through an analysis of the romantic idealism of his younger self. Joyce, born Irish Catholic, became a searcher/researcher for a more meaningful spiritual expression at the beginning of the twentieth century. Under the influence of James Frazer’s encyclopedic catalogue of myths and Freud and Jung’s exploration of the symbolism of mythologies, Joyce experienced liberation from his youthful indoctrination in Judeo/ Christian mythology. His decision to base Ulysses on Greek mythology began a process that ended with the attempt to assimilate all mythologies into Finnegan’s Wake.
          But Joyce, after recreating in Ulysses a day in the life of Dublin as a mythical journey, began to confuse the logic of myth with the history of mythologies. The distinction between myth and history is immediately apparent in the Bible where there are only two passages of mythological expression. The first, in Genesis, which describes God’s creation of the world, his forming of man and then woman, with the consequent revelation of the knowledge of good and evil. The second, in the Gospels, describes the miraculous conception, birth and death of Christ. The rest of the Old and New Testaments recount legendary and historical events of the Hebrew tribes and early Christian communities.
          So when Joyce decided to compile his monomyth he compounded, under the influence of the historicist patterns of Giambattista Vico, the mythological expressions from the world’s cultures, with their legends and histories. Even though he had identified some of the logical characteristics of myth in Ulysses, his decision to record the events of a day in the Dublin of 1904 led to a confusion of myth and history, with disastrous consequences for the intelligibility of Finnegan’s Wake as either myth or history.

    Joyce and Shakespeare

    Whereas Dante was Eliot’s poet of choice, Joyce considered Shakespeare his greatest protagonist. He was challenged both by the self-awareness Shakespeare demonstrated in characters like Hamlet, and by the mythic depth sounded in plays like King Lear. Despite his regard for Augustine and Aquinas and other Christian apologists, he intuitively responded to the mythic achievement of Shakespeare’s works.
          But the trajectory of Joyce’s development as an artist led him away from the possibility of appreciating the singular mythic logic Shakespeare articulated in the Sonnets as the philosophy behind all his plays and poems. Joyce’s engagement with Shakespeare never rises to the philosophic heights required to appreciate the logic of myth. Instead his confrontation with the psychology of his youthful self and then his engagement with an historical moment in the life of Dublin deflected him toward repeating the logical errors of the Judeo/Christian tradition.
          Stephen’s deliberations on Shakespeare in the library scene in Ulysses provide an insight into Joyce’s level of expectation. While Stephen’s ‘theories’ cannot be read as Joyce’s own understanding of Shakespeare, when they are aligned with the mythological pattern in Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake they give a measure of Joyce’s limitations.
          Symptomatic of the limitations is Joyce’s recourse to the biographical speculations that litter the orthodox literature on Shakespeare’s works. Despite Joyce’s desire to penetrate the workings of Shakespeare’s mind, his failure to comprehend the mythic logic available in the Sonnets leads inevitably to a miasma of biographical and psychological speculation.
          In the library scene in Ulysses, Joyce has Stephen expound, with interjections from the others in the library, on issues such as authorship of the plays, the identity of Mr. W. H. and the ‘dark lady’, the supposed neglect of Anne Hathaway, and Shakespeare’s presumed need to journey to London to discover himself (is it coincidental Joyce was in exile in Paris and Trieste?). It is indicative of Joyce’s failure to achieve Shakespearean insights that he devotes a whole chapter to such spurious debate.
          Particularly revealing of the inadequacy of Joyce’s achievement is Stephen’s play on the relation of ‘father’ and ‘son’. Joyce’s struggle to gain a perspective on his youthful idealism, and his ruminations on Shakespeare’s psychological similarity to Hamlet, led him to formulate the circular metaphor of a ‘father’ who gains artistic maturity by giving birth to the literary ‘son’ who fathered the maturity. The telling irony is that by focusing on the literary relation of Shakespeare to Hamlet, and to the ‘ghost’ of Hamlet’s father, Joyce ignores the role of Hamlet’s mother Gertrude.
          Joyce’s exploration of an autobiographical connection between Shakespeare and Hamlet, which reflects Joyce’s consciousness of his youthful self, does not account for the mythic objectivity achieved by Shakespeare in his plays. Ulysses demonstrates that Joyce could reflect objectively on Stephen and Bloom’s path to maturity, but the discourse in the library, which presents a litany of Sonnet ephemera, shows that Joyce did not appreciate the mature vision evident in Shakespeare’s Sonnet philosophy. And the absence of the Sonnet logic from Finnegan’s Wake demonstrates that he never achieved Shakespeare’s level of mythic insight.
          A precise indicator of Joyce’s failure to understand Shakespeare is the absence of significant conversation between Leopold and Molly Bloom and more critically between Steven and Molly. There is no examination in the Portrait or Ulysses of a mother/son/daughter dynamic equivalent to Joyce’s examination of the relation of ‘father’ and ‘son’.
          Ulysses, possibly in imitation of the conventional psychological misunderstanding of the relation of the ‘friend’ and ‘dark lady’ in the Sonnets, does start with the youthful Stephen and ends with the ‘dark’ ruminations of Molly. But there the resemblance ends. Neither Stephen nor Bloom engage with the woman who should have been central to Joyce’s attempt to recreate myth. Molly begins and ends the day lying in bed. If she were to emulate Penelope’s role in Odysseus’ epic journey her attitude toward her ‘suitors’ would have been less self-indulgent and non-committal.
          The mute self-reflection of Molly is in contrast to the role of the Mistress in the Sonnets. In the Mistress sequence, the Poet first imbibes the logic of beauty from her sensory presence (127 to 137) and then, in the verbal interaction of the second half, he learns the logic of truth (138 to 152). If Molly represents the passivity of nature for Joyce, and Gerty and the whores are the active female principle, he doubly misrepresents the logical role of the human female in relation to the male.
          Joyce’s unwillingness to create a credible female character, who can demonstrate the priority of the female over the male through her appreciation of the logic of both beauty and truth, leads inevitably to the mythological confusion of the Wake. By focusing primarily on his own experiences as a male, Joyce perpetuates the male-God illogicality of the Judeo/Christian tradition.

    Joyce and Eliot

    Joyce and Eliot were both determined to recover the mythological dimension in literary expression. The use of traditional mythologies in their earlier work, and their determination to engage with the mythical at a philosophical level in their later work, sets them apart from most other twentieth century writers. They differed, for instance, from Yeats whose interest in the arcane and the spiritualistic crippled his capacity to engage seriously with mythologies. Similarly the crypto-religious writings of fantasists like C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, with their sentimental idealism, make Joyce or Eliot seem rigorous.
          At least Joyce and Eliot had an apprehension of the significance of the higher sensations of the mind. Eliot’s description in Tradition and the Individual Talent, of the relation between ‘ordinary emotions’ and ‘new ones’ in the mind was an attempt to express the consequence of the ‘concentration of a very great number of experiences’ which unite in an ‘atmosphere’ of ‘a passive attending upon the event’.(7) For Joyce, the difference between the ‘kinesis’ of ordinary emotions and the ‘stasis’ of art is the ‘satisfaction of certain special feelings’. It involves a process so that ‘as we come to see truth, so we come to feel emotional stasis’. (7)
          Yet Joyce and Eliot seem inarticulate when their efforts are compared with the consistent logic of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. While they both mused on the nature of the aesthetic experience, neither was aware that the Sonnets give a precise and comprehensive presentation of the logic of aesthetics and ethics. Sonnets 127 to 152 consider the logic of beauty and truth, and sonnets 20 to 126 consider the logic of truth and beauty. If they had been aware of Shakespeare’s logic, Eliot would not have accused Shakespeare of having no philosophy and no morals and Joyce’s later work would not have been stunted by its mythological presumptions.
          The limitation of Joyce and Eliot’s understanding of Shakespeare’s natural logic can also be seen in the significance both writers give to the concept of time. In the Four Quartets, Eliot muses plaintively and frequently on the passage of time. He is concerned about past, present and future as well as the beginning and the end. His concern is consistent with his commitment to a death-orientated religion that many dismiss as being irrelevant to the demographics of the twentieth century except as a psychological bulwark for anxious minds.
          Joyce’s attempt in Finnegan’s Wake to bring all the historic expressions of the mythological sensibility into focus in one man’s dream similarly subjects the logic of myth to the exigencies of time. His reliance on Vico’s temporal cycles of the human spirit, the ‘Religious’, ‘Heroic’, and ‘Civil’, (8) anchors his understanding of myth to temporal concepts.
          It is no wonder then, that neither Joyce nor Eliot appreciated the mythic philosophy of Shakespeare works and particularly the precise articulation of mythic logic in the Sonnets. Shakespeare gives exact expression to the priority of nature over time (sonnet 126), and to the logical relation of birth and death, and the priority of the female over the male. Joyce and Eliot’s acceptance of the supremacy of the male, whether in Finnegan’s dream or in the male-God of Christianity, prevents them from understanding the philosophy of a poet and dramatist whose influence they could not avoid.
          When the work of Joyce and Eliot, with their attempts on the one hand to construct a novel based on all mythologies, and on the other to recover faith in a particular mythology, is compared with that of their contemporary Marcel Duchamp, the differences are striking. Duchamp demonstrates what is possible when the illogical basis of traditional belief is challenged and rectified. It is ironical, particularly given the complex ironies in Joyce’s work, that neither of them were aware of the penetrating insights of an artist regarded as the most astute aesthetic practitioner of the twentieth century.

    Shakespeare’s challenge to Joyce and Eliot

    So far, the mythological stances of Joyce and Eliot and their regard for the works of Shakespeare have been noted. Both desired to regenerate a mythological level of expression in their writing. They differed, though, as to whether Shakespeare’s works were a resource for the recovery process. Eliot sensed a mythic depth in Shakespeare’s works but dismissed the idea that he developed his own philosophy, and did not consider the possibility that he articulated the logical conditions for a mythic level of expression. Instead he turned to the Christian mythology of Dante, and renewed his own faith in the Judeo/Christian tradition. The result was a body of verse that lacks mythic resonance, despite the ever-present background of his Christian faith.
          Joyce attempted to access the mythic depth available in Shakespeare’s works. Even though he based Ulysses on Homer’s Odyssey, he revealed his fascination with Shakespeare in Ulysses and throughout his works. But Joyce was not able to penetrate the mythic logic of the Sonnets and plays, so he remained at the mercy of a psychological and biographical level of interpretation.
          To gain an insight into Joyce and Eliot’s opposed attitudes to the mythological, the mythical dimension in their work can be compared with the complete mythic logic presented in the Sonnets. Because the Sonnets present the logical conditions for any mythological expression, the exercise should not only identify the elements missing from Joyce and Eliot’s work but also rectify their errors. And because their works remain within the male-based psychology of the Judeo/Christian tradition, the comparisons also critique that tradition.
          Shakespeare’s Sonnets detail the relationships in nature that lead logically to a comprehensive and consistent understanding of the mythic level of expression. By taking nature as a given, and by recognising the irreducible elements in human logic, Shakespeare is able to locate the components of the world that enable the human mind to perceive, think, and then experience intensified sensations.
          Once Shakespeare lays out the logical structure of human understanding within nature, he is able to structure his writings according to the same logic to reflect his awareness of the dynamic of understanding. Because his development of the relation of body and mind in his writing is consistent with the natural process of human evolution, his work automatically carries with it the logic of the mythic possibility.
          The logical structure evident in the Sonnets can be expressed diagrammatically to show the linear relationship of the interconnected components.

    Nature Template

    Nature Template

          Eliot’s decision to reaffirm his Christian faith puts him diametrically at odds with Shakespeare’s natural logic. Not only could Eliot not see the brilliant philosophy articulated in the Sonnets and apparent in all the plays, he opted for the system of Christian apologetics, and its greatest poet, Dante. Even though Eliot was operating under the aegis of a recognised mythology, he was not actively able to engage the components of mythic logic in his work. The major role he gives to time (‘beginning and end’) highlights his inability to appreciate the mythic components available even in his own beliefs.
          Eliot’s difficulties with Shakespeare can be expressed in a template that takes the components of Shakespeare’s natural logic and shows how they are redistributed to accord with the priority of the male God over nature. Ironically, while the diagram for the biblical myth incorporates the literary basis of belief, it illogically presumes that the literary structure has priority over the natural logic from which it was originally derived.

    God Template

    God template

          The crucial inversion is the reversal of the priorities of the sexual and the erotic. In the God template the state of human desires comes before the sexual dynamic from which it arises. The absence of eroticism in Eliot’s own writing demonstrates his ignorance of the logical priority of body over mind. A psychological fear of the sexual is apparent in his avoidance of the erotic. Eliot even states his belief that the body is an ‘enminded’ thing. Eliot’s ignorance of the logical significance of the increase argument and its implications for truth and beauty means his work lacks both a basis in common sense and an active truth dynamic.
          Joyce at least recognised that the Judeo/Christian tradition had lost its singular hold over the imagination of thinking human beings in the West. His determination to engage afresh with the mythologies of the world ensured that many of the components of mythic logic are genuinely present in his work. Instead of creating a disembodied poetry like Eliot, in the Portrait Joyce explores his psychological development as a male, and then in Ulysses gives a rudimentary expression to the relation of male to female.
          Joyce is uninhibited in exploring the sex life of his characters and, whether he realised it or not, has both males and females in Ulysses assuage their erotic desires through masturbation rather than having sex for the purpose of increasing humankind. The eroticism in Ulysses, and this is particularly the case with Leopold and Molly’s masturbations, seems to acknowledge the non-biological status of literature. Joyce’s apparent intuitive appreciation that the eroticism in Genesis and the New Testament is autoerotic, because myth both presents the basic logic of the world and reflects on its own non-sexual status as erotic, governs the sexual relations in Ulysses.
          But Joyce, as demonstrated by his largely psycho/biographical approach to Shakespeare, did not appreciate the logic of the mythic level of expression. He uses natural features around Dublin as the matrix within which the action occurs, and even though Molly Bloom forms the background against which his human drama unfolds, neither nature nor the female is restored to its rightful priority, as in Shakespeare. If Joyce had understood the Sonnet philosophy he would have recognised the need to acknowledge the logic of increase as prior to the possibility of truth and beauty.
          Joyce’s inability to appreciate the philosophy of the Sonnets meant that his work hovers uncomfortably between the apologetic illogicalities of Eliot’s resort to orthodox beliefs and Shakespeare’s achievement of locating the logic of any mythic possibility. Joyce did not see that the Sonnet logic frees Shakespeare from the history of mythological expression, and enables everything he writes to be inherently mythic. Because Shakespeare isolates the key components for writing at will at a mythic level, unlike Joyce, he had no need to give expression to all the myths and legends and folktales in recorded history.
          The comparison between the inventiveness and deep drama of Shakespeare plays and the formal and stylistic games of the drama-less Finnegan’s Wake is a measure of Shakespeare’s philosophic brilliance and Joyce’s continued subjection to the psychology of male-based idealistic egoism. (Ezra Pound summed up the syndrome with the laconic title of his journal, The Egoist.)
          None of this would matter if Eliot was not so determined to deny Shakespeare a deliberate philosophical ‘pattern’ and Joyce was not so susceptible to making life easier for himself by belittling the mythic achievement of the plays. Together, along with 400 years of persistent misrepresentation either by believers wishing to deny Shakespeare his rightful standing or by well-meaning egoists who fall into the trap of psychological identification (such as Oscar Wilde in his book Portrait of Mr.W. H. (9)), Joyce and Eliot show in opposing ways how to get it so wrong about Shakespeare.

          (Acknowledgment is given to S. L. Goldberg’s Joyce, Oliver and Boyd, 1962. His precise summary of Joyce’s achievement has proved an invaluable resource over the last 30 years. Even though this critique goes beyond Goldberg’s comments by examining Joyce’s relationship to Shakespeare’s mythic logic, Goldberg’s analysis of Joyce’s trajectory from youthful idealist to ambitious mythologist provides an invaluable preparation for appreciating Shakespeare’s achievement.)


    1 T. S. Eliot, Notes Toward the Definition of Culture, London, Faber and Faber, 1948, p. 122. Back
    2 Ibid., p. 33. Back
    3 Ibid., p. 30. Back
    4 Ibid., p. 34. Back
    5 T. S. Eliot, Introduction, G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire, London, Methuen, 1965, p. xx. Back
    6 Ibid., p. xix. Back
    7 S. L. Goldberg, Joyce, London, Oliver and Boyd, 1962, p. 10. Back
    8 Ibid., p.106. Back
    9 Oscar Wilde, Portrait of Mr.W. H., 1891 Back

    Roger Peters Copyright © 2005

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