'Seeing it whole: Historicism and the rejection of unity": A paper for the seminar 'Shakespeare and historicisms' on 28 July at the International Shakespeare Conference at the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford upon Avon, 25-30 July" by Gabriel Egan
In his model of what he called the Elizabethan World Picture, E. M. W. Tillyard characterized the set of beliefs, assumptions, and habits of mind that a typical educated person might hold as a cobbled-together patchwork of medieval commonplaces and newly-minted explanations that mediated between those commonplaces and the humanism that had been emerging since the twelfth century (Tillyard 1943, 1-6). Tillyard's Picture, however, was not only a statement about Elizabethan faith in orderliness, it was also quite strictly a picture: a visualizable model of how the various levels of the cosmos (the planes) were structured and how they were tied together by the Chain of Being. This chain stretched "from the foot of God's throne to the meanest of inanimate objects", linking all creation in rank order: every item in the chain (except the first and large) "was simultaneously bigger and smaller than another" (Tillyard 1943, 23). The chain is to be imagined falling vertically, so at the top below God were the orders of angels, the best of whom were little worse than God and the worst of whom were little better than human beings, the next class below them. Of the human beings, the best were almost angels and the worst little better than beasts, the next class below them, and so on descending through the classes of sentient beasts (from noble lion to ignoble worm), and the animals (say, molluscs) that were little better than vegetation, which was itself little better than soil and rocks upon which it grew (Tillyard 1943, 34-80).
The point of this absurdly rigid class structure of creation was not (despite his critics' wilful misreadings of Tillyard) the rank order itself, but the system of correspondences between the planes that suffused the model at every level (Tillyard 1943, 81-95). The repeated differential within each class made possible analogies between the classes: the best kind of dog is better than others by virtue of characteristics that are analogous to the ways in which the best kind of rock surpasses its fellows (in the plane below) and the best of humans surpasses his fellows (in the plane above). Particular pairs of planes had special analogical correspondences, so that order in the macrocosm was analogous to order in the social organization of human beings as a state (Tillyard 1943, 82-84), the arrangement of the physical world (rivers, winds, grass) had corresponding analogues in the human body (blood vessels, breath, hair), which is the so-called macrocosm/microcosm correspondence (Tillyard 1943, 84-87), and the state itself (the body politic) had correspondences in the microcosm of the human body (Tillyard 1943, 87-91).
Taken literally, Tillyard's version of an alleged Picture seems so absurd that, as far I can tell, no critic has bothered to refute it. The focus of the attack on Tillyard has been that Elizabethans did not actually believe the picture he outlined, rather than that the picture itself is wrong. It may indeed be true that Elizabethans did not believe it, but that may be beside the point. Like witchcraft or the existence of aliens for us, the account of the universe that the Picture embodied was available for use in dramatic and non-dramatic narratives and poetry. Characters in Shakespeare speak meaningfully about comets presaging disaster and about the music of the spheres, and unless we suppose that these lines elicited derisive laughter from the theatre audiences we have to accept that such things were within the realm of the believable even if not widely believed. This alone gives us cause enough to study Tillyard's Picture, but in fact (and unlike witchcraft and aliens) his model of reality might also in some surprising ways be objectively true. A macrocosm/microcosm correspondence need not of itself run counter to the particularities of life as it is lived on Earth and events in the wider universe. Indeed, the oft-commented beauty of Newton's equations lies in their equal applicability at all scales of motion from the smallest to the largest.
Tillyard and the holographic analogy
Modern science has shown how other kinds of correspondence between planes may operate unseen. In 1948 the Hungarian scientist Dennis Gabor invented a means of improving the resolving power of the electron microscope by photographing not the image produced by the beam of electrons bouncing off an object but rather the interference pattern between this beam and a beam reflected by the object's background. Viewed in a coherent light (that is, one with its waves in phase), this photograph reveals depth-information about the object, making a 3-dimensional picture rather than a 2-dimensional picture. With the development of lasers as sources of bright, coherent light in the 1960s it became possible to make 3-dimensional pictures stored on 2-dimensional planes of glass: holograms. A curious feature of a hologram is that if it smashed into a collection of shards, each of the shards, when viewed under coherent light, will be seen to contain the full image of the original plate rather than a fraction of it. The full image is, in effect, stored many times over across the surface of the hologram, and smashing the shard again will produce yet-smaller fragments each of which nonetheless contains the whole image.
A similar property of repetitions down through the scales of size applies to a set of objects, fractals, defined by precise mathematical formulae and displaying self-similarity. Fractal objects occur in non-organic and organic nature, such as the snow-flake (Figure 2) and fern leaf (Figure 3). In the snowflake, the Star of David pattern of two overlapping triangles governs the overall shape and is fully repeated, at a small scale, in each of the corners. Each of these six corners is itself made of a further 6 Star of David patterns, and so on down through the scale. Expressed as a mathematical function, this principle of self-repetition goes on indefinitely. In the example of the fern too, the overall shape of the leaf is repeated in each petal of the leaf, and each petal is made of still smaller versions of the same shape. The example of the fern leaf is particularly instructive because it indicates the informational economy of reusing at different scales the same set of genetic instructions ('make this shape'), which brevity is doubtless advantageous to an organism. Similarly, as Richard Dawkins showed, the simple instruction for a growing limb to branch can be reused throughout an organism to produce the great variety of physical structures that we see in living things (Dawkins 1986, 43-74). Self-similarity (as the fractal principle is sometimes called) is an especially economical way to create or describe complex organic and inorganic phenomena. As with a shard of a hologram, possession of any part of a fractal is possession of the whole, for the pattern is repeated infinitely down through the levels; there is no sense in which one can distinguish 'part' from 'whole' in such a phenomenon.
In another way too, the Tillyardian holographic principle applies to biology. Every cell in the human body contains a full set of instructions, genes, necessary for making the whole body. Indeed, each contains not only the instructions for making the individual but also the instructions (inherited from the parent of the opposite sex) for making body parts the individual does not possess but which will be needed by his or her child of the opposite sex. Men carry unused genes for making breasts, ovaries, and a womb, and women carry unused genes for making a penis and an Adam's apple. To call this distribution of information a Tillyardian principle is not to credit him with preemption of the sciences of fractals, holographs, or genetics. Rather, Tillyard accurately encapsulated the essence of certain principles that were encoded in the Renaissance Literature that he immersed himself in, and applications to Shakespeare abound. An example would be the injunction that patriarchal relations in a family be modelled on monarchial relations in society, which uses analogy to generate a likeness between elements on different scales that reinforces both. To disobey one's father is like treason, and treason is like filial disobedience.
Just as the Picture clearly encoded particular ideological structures, Tillyard's modelling of it should not, of course, be seen as an ideologically-neutral interpretation of the evidence of Renaissance Literature. It was, in fact, a highly motivated assault upon a model for how English as an academic subject should develop that had been laid out by I. A. Richards, F. R. Leavis and T. S. Eliot, and upon the loosely-defined school of New Criticism, as Hugh Grady showed (Grady 1991, 113-89). New Criticism was an avowedly anti-historicist approach to Literature that tended to demote knowledge of the original creative context to a kind of gossip--"revelations (in journals, for example, or letters or reported conversations) about how or why the poet wrote the poem--to what lady, while sitting on what lawn, or at the death of what friend or brother"--that was "not a part of the work as a linguistic fact" (Wimsatt & Beardsley 1946, 477-78). Of course, in truth the historicist critic values not only the particular events that are local to the writer but also the wider social events, historical trends, and (especially) habits of mind, and all the more so for works that were made long ago or far away.
For all their differences over the proper approach to Literature, old historicists such as Tillyard and Lily B. Campbell shared with the New Critics the principle that a fragment of a literary work would operate something like a fragment of a (not-yet-invented) hologram, revealing in miniature a full version of the whole. Writing about Macbeth, for example, founding father of New Criticism Cleanth Brooks considered the images of the naked babe (1.7.21-22) and clothed ("breeched") daggers (2.3.115-6) to be "two of the great symbols which run throughout the play" and "so used as to encompass an astonishingly large area of the total situation" (Brooks 1947, 49). For the New Critics, the compression of meaning in, for example, an image was the essential quality of literary writing, and it was this forcing of so much into so little that made the words on the page (as opposed to the collateral knowledge about the writer's biography and historical context) all one needed to do criticism. It is worth noticing too that this mode of criticism was perfectly adapted to the rapidly expanding university subject of English: new institutions lacking substantial library resources could teach the new method without them.
The compression need not happen via imagery; for the English New Critic William Empson it could be a matter of surprisingly awkward syntax or diction. Nonetheless, it was the compression that made the thing literary:
When you are holding a variety of things in your mind, or using for a single matter a variety of intellectual machinery, the only way of applying all your criteria is to apply then simultaneously; the only way of forcing the reader to grasp your total meaning is to arrange that he can only feel satisfied if he is bearing all the elements in mind at the moment of conviction; the only way of not giving something heterogeneous is to give something which is at every point a compound. (Empson 1930, 302)
Approaching Literature from entirely the opposite angle--"I do not believe that a poet exists in a vacuum, or even that he exists solely in the minds and hearts of his interpreters"--Lily B. Campbell nonetheless shared the New Critics' convictions that the poet, because a poet, relates the microcosm to the macrocosm:
He is inevitably a man of feeling. If, however, he is not merely a poet but a great poet, the particulars of his experience are linked in meaning to the universal of which they are a representative part. . . . the greatest poets . . . have seen life as a whole, not in fragments. (Campbell 1947, 6-7)
Hugh Grady observed that uniting the disparate modernist approaches to Shakespeare was a faith in the organic unity of art and a respect for hierarchy, both of which he hoped could be swept away by postmodernism:
The relevant characteristics are the abandonment of organic unity as an aesthetic value and practice and the overthrow of a series of formerly privileged hierarchical oppositions through a Postmodernist anti-hierarchical impulse (as, for example in the collapse of the High Modernist distinction between 'art' and 'popular culture' or in the championing of the various Others of Western rationality like women and Third World peoples). (Grady 1991, 207)
Understandably, Grady worried that any new mode of literary analysis might become just as easily professionalized, and hence made safe for mass dissemination in English studies, as the old ones had (Grady 1991, 213-14); indeed deconstruction already seems awfully like New Criticism. However, I wish to argue that the left-wing dread of organic unity is entirely misplaced, as ecopolitics (which takes the organic seriously) shows. Indeed, a belief in various kinds of unity might be a powerful solvent of the fracturing impulses of late industrial capitalism, not least of all in the examples of the unitary Earth.
The Gaia hypothesis
You probably will not have noticed, but the sun has been getting hotter. If you were 3.6 billion years old--that is to say, if you were born when life started on Earth--the sun's output of energy would have increased by about 30% over your lifespan, yet the Earth's surface has remained between 10 and 20 degree Celsius all this time. To understand why requires the Gaia hypothesis first formally presented by James E. Lovelock (Lovelock 1972) and subsequently expanded upon by Lovelock and Lynn Margulis (Lovelock & Margulis 1974a; Lovelock & Margulis 1974b). The The Greek word ca´a (Gaia) or cž (Ge) means 'Earth', hence our English prefix geo- for earth-related nouns, and was suggested to Lovelock by William Golding when he heard Lovelock's ideas in 1967. essence of the Gaia hypothesis is that the Earth is a single organism comprised of the obviously alive biota (the lifeforms we recognize) and the parts that we have previously treated as inorganic, the background environment such as the rocks, oceans, and atmosphere. It doubtless seems odd to include the inanimate rocks in any organism, but it is worth remembering that most of a tree is in fact dead material accreted over its lifetime and stored away in the trunk: only a thin layer of cells under the bark actually lives by the organic processes we recognize. To understand why this is a reasonable scientific (and hence materialist) way to think about the Earth, Lovelock invented a simple model of a Gaia process and called it DaisyWorld (Lovelock 1983).
DaisyWorld is a spherical planet uniformly bathed in light from a sun, and first of all let us consider what would happen on a lifeless DaisyWorld as the sun's temperature rose. Figure 4 shows the temperature rising smoothly as the sun's output rises. This is what happens on the other (lifeless) planets in our solar system: their temperatures are simply determined by the energy that falls on them. But DaisyWorld is different, for it happens to have scattered upon its surface the seeds for two kinds of plant: white daisies and black daisies. White daisies reflect a lot of light and hence keep themselves and their surroundings cool, but they do not photosynthesize as efficiently as black daisies, which absorb a lot of light and quickly warm themselves and their surroundings. Both kinds of daisy thrive at the same ideal temperature, but initially their sun produces too little energy for either to germinate.
As suns across the universe do, theirs heats up and with the rising surface temperature both kinds of plant begin to grow and to populate DaisyWorld. In this initially cold climate, the black daisies do rather better than the white ones because they are better at photosynthesis, and by natural selection DaisyWorld is covered with black daisies. A mostly-black DaisyWorld reflects little light and the entire planet warms up rather more quickly that it would had it been barren. As the sun's output continues to rise, the relative advantage of the black daisies diminishes: there is so much light that even white daisies have enough to photosynthesize efficiently and they begin to return. This is just as well because the ever-rising output of the sun is making DaisyWorld rather too hot for daisies, but of course the white, reflective daisies are less affected by this than the black, absorptive daisies are. As the temperature rises still further the black daisies die off and the white daisies come to dominate the planet's surface, and a mostly-white DaisyWorld reflects much of the sun's energy, keeping things cool enough for life to go on. Eventually, of course, the sun's energy is so great that not even a white daisy-cooled planet can sustain life and eventually all the daisies die. The pattern of temperature on a living DaisyWorld is shown in Figure 5. Although the sun got increasingly hotter, the temperature on DaisyWorld remained roughly the same (near the ideal for daisies) while it supported life, because the ratio of black to white daisies shifted precisely as needed to counteract the effect of overheating. The daisies did this without any planning or design, it was merely that the ecosystem in general (comprised of the organic matter, the daisies, and the inorganic matter, the surface of DaisyWorld that they grow on) formed a negative-feedback loop, regulating the planet's surface temperature. At the extremes this regulation did not work: when it was too cold at the beginning and too hot at the end, no daisies survived. But for a significant time between these extremes (shown by the two dotted vertical lines), the energy from their sun rose steadily yet the surface temperature of DaisyWorld remained stable.
If the sun's output were to vary only within the boundaries of this plateau the temperature on DaisyWorld would remain roughly constant indefinitely, and one might say that DaisyWorld is regulating its own temperature by adjusting the ratio of black to white daisies to keep things just right for life to be supported. This might seem like anthropomorphizing, since DaisyWorld is not really alive and so cannot regulate its own temperature in the way that biota do. This was the common view of biologists when Lovelock first proposed his Gaia hypothesis, but in the last twenty years great changes in the philosophy of science have convinced many people that the traditional distinction between alive and dead and between individual and others can be as misleading as the distinction between nature and culture. Counter-intuitively, it is in fact not extraordinary to describe the entire system--that is, DaisyWorld as a unity--as alive. The kind of thinking that gives rise to this sort of claim can best be exampled in genetics.
There is a parasitic fluke (flatworm) that lives inside a certain species of snail and interferes with the snail's hormonal system to increase the signal controlling how thick a shell the snail will grow. The snail ends up with a thicker shell than it really needs, the making and the carrying around of which wastes energy that otherwise the snail could have spent on reproduction. This is of no concern to the fluke, whose investment is in the particular snail it has infested, not its descendents. So long as this particular snail does not get killed (and for this a thick shell helps) the fluke can reproduce. Zoologists have traditionally thought of the limit of the effect of an organism's genotype (the particular genes making it genome) to be its phenotype (the body built by those genes), but in this case one can truly say that the fluke carries a gene for thick shells even though the fluke has no shell and only borrows the one of its host (Dawkins 1989, 240-42). Certainly, a fluke that does not carry the gene for thickening its host's shell will lose out in the competition for survival with those that do, and so the thick shell gene will be naturally selected. Looked at another way, one might say that since a spider's web is as much an effect of its genes as its hairy legs--the web-making behaviour is innate not learned--the distinction between the traditional phenotype (the hairy body) and the product made by that phenotype (its web) is false. Richard Dawkins, who pointed out this error, suggested that we should take into account all the effects of genes and think about The Extended Phenotype (Dawkins 1982), as he called his book.
That the entire Earth might be exhibiting a characteristic, temperature regulation, that since the Enlightenment we have attributed only to individual creatures, is a disturbing thought for us. However, if Tillyard's model of the Elizabethan World Picture is even close to potential habits of minds of Shakespeare's first audiences and readers, then it would have appeared unremarkable to them. A belief in the connection between the affairs of human beings in the sublunary sphere and occurrences among the higher layers (the sky, planetary spheres, and the fiery realm) was firmly, and it seemed at the time irrevocably, ruptured in the eighteenth-century. Modern science seems to be capable of restoring this belief, and there are two ways to consider such a development. One is to accept that aspects of Enlightenment thinking were excessively particularizing and, in ways that suited the Industrial Revolution, overlooked connectivities that we find obvious. Had factory owners been forced to site their fresh water intake pipes downstream of their waste water discharge pipes, the absurd idea that effluent is simply carried away harmlessly to the sea would not easily have persisted. The same Reason that made possible beneficial technological inventions could have been applied to the harmful aspects of industrialization had there been an interest to consider systems (such as the rivers and oceans) as wholes.
An alternative response to the new sciences is to find in them reasons to reject Reason, Rationality, and the Enlightenment tout court. One of the most noticeable cultural developments in the Western world in the past 30 years has been the rise of an anti-rationalistic, alternative culture that embraces the New Age movement, complementary medicine, and forms of holistic spiritualism, and links these to broader anarchist and animal rights movements. For an apparently rising number of people the Enlightenment itself was an illusory detour into hyper-rationality and the sense of connectedness voiced in Elizabethan drama and poetry offers a form of spirituality that comes packaged within a rich supply of artistic works that are already central to Western culture. This view is necessarily deluded and riven by contradiction: the new sciences themselves are founded on Reason and cannot simply be co-opted to irrationality, as Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont brilliantly demonstrated in their book Intellectual Impostures on the weaknesses of postmodernism (Sokal & Bricmont 1998). The proper way to understand the new sciences in relation to artistic culture is to respect their counter-intuitive claims--for example, that flukes have genes for body parts belonging to other creatures--while exploring how they throw light on past works of art. This can be illustrated by considering Shakespeare's characters' understanding of why black people are black, which is essentially correct (the sun makes them black) but for the wrong reason.
The black daisies of DaisyWorld retain heat energy that strikes them while the white ones reflect it away. Anyone who has changed from black to white clothes or vice versa on a sunny day will have noticed that black materials retain heat energy. The prevailing Renaissance conception of how black people come to be black is clearly expressed by characters in Shakespeare. In The Merchant of Venice the prince of Morocco anticipates (correctly, as it turns out) that Portia is racist:
MOROCCO (to Portia) Mislike me not for my complexion,
The shadowed livery of the burnished sun,
To whom I am a neighbour and near bred.
On the inside, he goes on to insist, his blood is as red as anyone else's, even though he is coated with blackness (a "shadowed livery") caused by living in a sunny country. Desdemona's father uses the same idea of a burnt coating that should have revolted his daughter, and that hence magic must have been used to make her "Run from her guardage to the sooty bosom / Of such a thing as thou" (1.2.71-2). Othello shares (or perhaps comes to share) this sense of his blackness as a coating: convinced that Desdemona is unfaithful he says "My name, that was as fresh | As Dian's visage, is now begrimed and black | As mine own face" (3.3.391-3).
Likewise, in the very act of denying that blackness can wash off, Aaron in Titus Andronicus imagines it not as an innate colour but a coating:
Coal-black is better than another hue
In that it scorns to bear another hue;
For all the water in the ocean
Can never turn the swan's black legs to white,
Although she lave them hourly in the flood.
Washing the Ethiop (or blackamore) white was, of course, proverbial in Shakespeare's time (Dent 1981, Appendix A, E186). What conceptions about the world gave rise to the idea that blackness is a coating? For a white actor playing Morocco, Othello, or Aaron the character's sense of his blackness as a coating is, of course, literally true: excluding the unlikely possibility that a black actor worked in Shakespeare's company (about which we would expect there to be some record), the actor would have blacked up with a coating as preparation for the performance. The part, then, with its references to blackness as a coating, is inherently suited to a white actor in makeup and not a black actor at all, and this adds support to the argument made by the Ghanaian actor Hugh Quarshie that black people should not play Othello, or at least not without major reworking of the play (Quarshie 1999).
An observation of the distribution of skin colours around the world would have indicated to Elizabethans that black people live in hot countries, and many things (including white skin) do indeed darken under strong sunlight, so a reasonable assumption would have been that black people simply had really deep tans. And in a sense they do: the melanin pigment causing brownness is the same in all humans. But, in this particular, DaisyWorld daisies and ourselves have opposite reactions: we tan in the sun not in order to absorb more of the sun's energy but as a protection from it. The heat energy of the sun does us no harm, but its ultraviolet light promotes errors in the copying of genetic material during cell division and can produce in us clusters of out-of-control skin cells, cancers. In countries where sunshine is strongest, humans whose melanocyte cells are especially active, producing greater amounts of the skin pigment melanin, are less likely to get skin cancers because this brown pigment absorbs ultraviolet light before it penetrates too far into the body. Such people have a competitive advantage over those with less active melanocyte cells and so over time dark skins were naturally selected, although once human populations spread around the world the advantage became less pronounced. Those living in cold northerly climates would in fact be at a relative disadvantage if they made excessive melanin--making it costs energy that were better spent elsewhere in the body--and hence, over evolutionary time, people in these climates turned white.
Importantly, the operations giving rise to colour differences between the races operate by Darwinian selection across a population, not on an individual. Although individuals do tan as melanin rises through to upper layers of skin, this is a marginal process; no-one tans from northern European white to African black. Yet it is quite true to say that the hot sun makes black people black even though there is no individual to whom this has happened: the characteristic emerged at the level of the system, not the individual. It is equally true to say that the sun shining on DaisyWorld made it turn white, and so the empirical observation can be literally true even within an utterly deficient model of how the processes operate. What matters is the level at which one thinks the causal phenomenon is operating, and explanations offered at one level might be untrue (the sun makes a black person black) at that level but true at another (the sun makes black people black). Likewise, Lovelock's description of the Earth as a single organism is the consequence of his particular way of looking at the complex interactions between the rocks, the atmosphere, and the life-forms. Self-similar phenomena such as ferns, snowflakes, human bodies, and human societies are apt to dissolve our particularizing Enlightenment certainties about causality and about distinguishing 'part' from 'whole'; this should make us reconsider the alleged Elizabethan commonplaces afresh.
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