The tragedy of learning nothing

In Lectures on Shakespeare, the poet W. H. Auden offers this insight about Shakespearen tragedy, in general, and Othello, in particular:

The big figures in Shakespeare’s tragedies do not learn anything – that is the ultimate tragedy of Shakespearean tragedy. Othello says in his last speech,

Soft you; a word or two before you go.
I have done the state some service, and they know’t.
No more of that. I pray you, in your letters,
When you shall these unlucky deeds relate,
Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,
Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak
Of one that loved not wisely but too well;
Of one not easily jealous, but being wrought
Perplex’d in the extreme; of one whose hand,
Like the base Indian, threw a pearl away
Richer than all his tribe; of one whose subdued eyes,
Albeit unused to the melting mood,
Drop tears as fast as the Arabian trees
Their medicinal gum. Set you down this;
And say besides, that in Aleppo once,
Where a malignant and a turban’d Turk
Beat a Venetian and traduced the state,
I took by the throat the circumcised dog,
And smote him, thus.

Othello learns nothing, remains in defiance, and is damned. He cannot think why he did what he did, or realize what was wrong. His thoughts are not on Desdemona at all. He just recalls he did some service to the state, and he ends by identifying himself with another outsider, the Moslem Turk. He has no realization of why he was jealous. It’s easy for us to see that Othello and Desdemona should not have married, but he never does.

What is the crux of Othello’s fall?

Literary critic Arthur Kirsch writes an essay on Othello in his excellent book, Shakespeare and the Experience of Love. What is “the crux of Othello’s fall”? Kirsch says:

He believes Desdemona cannot be true because he becomes convinced that he himself is unlovable and, believing that, he also becomes convinced that Desdemona’s manifest attraction to him is itself perverse, a “proof” of her corruption. Just before he strangles her, he and she have the following acutely painful dialogue:

OTHELLO: Think on thy sins.
DESDEMONA: They are loves I bear to you.
OTHELLO: Ay, and for that thou diest.
DESDEMONA: That death’s unnatural that kills for loving (V.2.43)

I am not altogether sure what these lines mean. Desdemona may be referring to the sin of disobeying her father. Othello may be condemning Desdemona for her very desire for him, or he may be projecting upon her his incapacity to accept his own desires, probably both. And hovering over these lines may be the sense of guilt of the original sin, which was at once physical and spiritual. But whatever their precise meaning, the lines convey the ultimate horror of the play, which is Othello’s radical rejection of the precept upon which his, or any, marriage is founded: “So men are bound to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his own wife, loveth himself” [Ephesians 5:28]. The tragedy of Othello is that finally he fails to love his own body, to love himself, and it is this despairing self-hatred that spawns the enormous savagery, degradation, and destructiveness of his jealousy.

The difference between Greek tragedy and Shakespearean tragedy

In Lectures on Shakespeare, the poet W. H. Auden makes this brilliant observation on the tragedy of Othello:

The particular kind of tragedy Shakespeare writes differs from Greek tragedy. Both assume that the tragic figure is a great or good man suffering from a flaw that brings him to destruction. If one asks, what is the matter with the Greek character, the answer is hybris, which is not translatable by our word pride. Hybris is the belief that one is omnipotent, a god. This doesn’t cause a radical difference in the way you behave, but the tragedy is the gods’ punishment for a man’s feeling like this. The envy of the gods is aroused when someone powerful – a power derived from them – should claim to be their equal. The gods show the heroes that they aren’t. The tragic heroes in Greek drama must therefore be great men, in a worldly sense. Members of the chorus in Greek tragedy can’t be heroes. The whole point in a Greek tragedy is that the hero and his tragic fate are exceptional.

Shakespeare’s tragic characters, on the other hand, suffer from the Christian sin of pride: knowing you aren’t God, but trying to become Him – a sin of which any of us is capable. Hybris is the manifestation of overweening self-confidence, of over-security. Pride is the manifestation of a lack of security, of the anxiety that is due to lack of faith, and of a defiance of one’s finite limitations as a human being. It is a form of despair. There are two types of despair: one is the despair of willing not to be oneself, the other is the despair of willing to be oneself. The official heroes of Shakespeare’s tragedies are men of passion who will not be themselves – their passions, not unlike the humours of Jonson’s characters, are the attempt to hide from themselves what they are. The other type of tragic figure is Iago, a tragic hero without passion, who refuses to yield to what he knows, who wills to be himself, who knows what he is and refuses to change, who refuses to relate himself in love to others and insists on standing outside the community. Iago relates to others only negatively.

Two kinds of sexual jealousy

In Lectures on Shakespeare, the poet W. H. Auden makes this observation on the tragedy of Othello:

There are two kinds of sexual jealousy. Ordinary sexual jealousy involves the infidelity of a person who has given himself to you when you discover that you can’t retain that gift. The bigger type is the jealousy of a person seen as a goddess or god-idol. In this type, (a) the idol must act in accord with your will, and (b) must act so of his own free will. Here, the moment you doubt, you’re sunk,  because once the idol is seen as human, like oneself, all assurances, all acts, can have a double interpretation. Either you must give up the idol or you must realize that you’re dependent on another human being.

Othello is an optical – and conceptual – illusion

ZebraIn Shakespeare and Modern Culture, Marjorie Garber writes this about the tragedy Othello:

The doubleness of focus is intrinsic to the very structure of the play. Othello in modern culture can certainly be said to have a “double consciousness” in the specialized sense used by W. E. B. DuBois: “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideas in one dark body” (p. 172).


The play is itself the most elusive and maddening of optical – and conceptual – illusions, figure and ground constantly exchanging places. If Oedipus is the myth and the play about a crossroads, we might invoke an everyday icon of modern life and say that Othello is the myth and the play about a crosswalk, or what in Britain is known as a “zebra crossing”: a pedestrian crossing marked by broad black-and-white stripes on the road. Othello is a hero; Othello is a dupe. Iago is a devil, a scoundrel, a Machiavel; Iago is the type of the successful modern politician, from Richard Darman to Karl Rove. Iago is a terrorist; Iago is a strategy for combating terrorism, by getting into the minds of others. Othello is black, brown, Moorish, African; a white actor in blackface; a black actor; a cliché for black actors; a political challenge for white actors. Iago hates Othello; no, he loves him, but he doesn’t know it, or can’t admit it. The play is about race, about politics, about preferment, about jealousy, about desire, about evil, about innocence, about motiveless malignity (p. 177).

What is a Christian education for?

In Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, philosopher James K. A. Smith offers a trenchant criticism of Christian education that assumes it sufficient to equip students with “a Christian perspective” on the world. He writes:

What is a Christian university for? Or what is the end of a Christian education? Please note that this is not the same as asking, “What makes a university Christian?” The most common answer to the latter question is that a Christian education provides “a Christian perspective” on the world, equipping young people to be successful but redemptive contributors to society precisely because they have been apprenticed in the disciplines and professions from the perspective of a Christian worldview. Such an answer to the latter question assumes an implicit answer to the former question, “What is the end of a Christian education?” According to this dominant paradigm, the goal of a Christian education is to produce professionals who do pretty much the same sorts of things that graduates of Ivy Leagues and state universities do, but who do them from “a Christian perspective,” and perhaps with the goal of transforming culture or redeeming society. So the Christian university graduates students equipped to take up vocations and careers that are largely the same as the graduates of the state university down the road: we graduate engineers and entrepreneurs, nurses and math teachers, museum curators and architects, social workers and audiologists, and a few philosophers to staff the local Starbucks. Our graduates have the requisite credentials to become productive contributors to society, even leaders, exerting influence on culture. And on top of all this, they are graduating not only with the requisite knowledge, skills, and credentials, but also with a Christian worldview. They have been trained to think about and pursue their vocations “from a Christian perspective.”

But what if that’s not enough? Or worse, what if a Christian perspective turns out to be a way of domesticating the radicality of the gospel? What if the rather abstract formulas of a Christian worldview turn out to be a way to tame and blunt the radical call to be a disciple of the coming kingdom? Could it be the case that learning a Christian perspective doesn’t actually touch my desire, and that while I might be able to think about the world from a Christian perspective, at the end of the day I love not the kingdom of God but rather the kingdom of the market? By reducing the genius of Christian faith to something like an intellectual framework – a “perspective” or a “worldview” – we can (perhaps unwittingly) unhook Christianity from the practices that constitute Christian discipleship. And when that happens, we end up thinking that being a Christian doesn’t radically reconfigure our desires and our wants, our practices and our habits. Sure, we might think that we’re supposed to be moral, but we’ll construe this in terms of personal integrity (e.g., “honest” business dealings) or instrumentalizing existing cultural systems for charitable ends (e.g., “redeeming” exploitative business practices by donating a portion of profits to charity; or generating philanthropy for non-profits that is fueled by the charity of the extremely wealthy). In too many cases, a Christian perspective doesn’t seem to challenge the very configuration of these careers and vocations. To be blunt, our Christian colleges and universities generate an army of alumni who look pretty much like all the rest of their suburban neighbors, except that our graduates drive their SUVs, inhabit their executive homes, and pursue the frenetic life of the middle class and the corporate ladder “from a Christian perspective.”

How does that happen? I’m suggesting that a Christian education has, for too long, been concerned with information rather than formation; thus Christian colleges have thought it sufficient to provide a Christian perspective, an intellectual framework, because they seem themselves as fostering individual “minds in the making.” Hand in hand with that, such an approach reduces Christianity to a denuded intellectual framework that has diminished bite because such an intellectual rendition of the faith doesn’t touch our core passions. This is because such intellectualization of Christianity allows it to be unhooked from the thick practices of the church. When the Christianity of “Christian education” is reduced to the intellectual elements of a Christian worldview or a Christian perspective, the result is that Christianity is turned “into a belief system available to the individual without mediation by the church.” “Such a strategy,” [Stanley] Hauerwas notes, “assumes that what makes a Christian a Christian is holding certain beliefs that help us better understand the human condition, to make sense of our experience.” Such a transformation of Christian faith into a belief system unhooks Christianity from the the practices of Christian worship, and thus keeps its distance from the radical revisioning of society that is implicit in Christian liturgy. Christianity “is not beliefs about God plus behavior. We are Christians not because of what we believe but because we have been called to be disciples of Jesus. Becoming a disciple is not a matter of a new or changed self-understanding but of becoming part of a different community with a different set of practices.” But the domestication of Christianity as a perspective does little to disturb or reorient our practices; rather, it too often becomes a way of affirming the configurations of culture that we find around us – we just do what everyone else does “plus Jesus.” Or, to quote some favorite lingo, our Christian schools will be committed to “excellence” – which turns out to be what other schools value, but we add some Jesus-piety to the mix. And all the while the liturgies of the mall and the military-entertainment complex are making us the kind of people who desire their kingdom, even though we might be thinking “from a Christian perspective.”

What’s the alternative? If Christian education is not merely about acquiring a Christian perspective or a Christian worldview, what is its goal? Its goal, I’m suggesting, is the same as the goal of Christian worship: to form radical disciples of Jesus and citizens of the baptismal city who, communally, take up the creational task of being God’s image bearers, unfolding the cultural possibilities latent in creation – but doing so as empowered by the Spirit, following the example of Jesus’s cruciform cultural labor. If the goal of Christian worship and discipleship is the formation of a peculiar people, then the goal of Christian education should be the same. If something like Christian universities are to exist, they should be configured as extensions of the mission of the church – as chapels that extend and amplify what’s happening at the heart of the cathedral, at the altar of Christian worship. In short, the task of Christian education needs to be reconnected to the thick practices of the church.

On metaphors

From Brad Leithauser’s essay in The New Yorker, Meet My Metaphor“:

To my mind, it’s one of the deepest gratifications the poet or fiction writer knows. I mean, the internal stumbling upon some satisfactory answer to the question, What is this like? Or, What does this remind me of? A comparison is laboriously but successfully introduced. You meet your metaphor, and it’s good.

Back in college, in one of those roots-of-civilization survey courses that flourished in the days before the near-simultaneous birth of irony and multiculturalism, I was told that the greatest similes and metaphors belonged to Homer. It’s in Book 1 of the Iliad that we’re given our first taste of the “wine-dark sea,” and I don’t suppose anyone ever has better evoked the mesmerizing, inebriating thoughts that marine motion moves in us. In Book 8, we come upon the famous image where the Trojan campfires become constellations. And in a number of places, Achilles is likened to a lion. But as equations go (ocean equals wine, campfire equals constellation, leading warrior equals king of beasts), these don’t represent leaps of any sizable or significant distance. To my mind, the deeper pleasure in metaphor lies in creating unexpected equations, perceiving likeness in the land of unlikeness.

I don’t suppose any literary metaphor or simile has ever struck me more forcibly than when, in my early teens, I first read the opening of T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table…

“Prufrock” is an amazing poem for all sorts of reasons, not least because over the years its opening image remains so fresh, so disconcerting. Those first lines are an oxymoron: an expected, dependable surprise. Over time, a sense of familiarity may slow and solidify Homer’s bounding lion and bounding warrior, petrifying them into statues, but Eliot’s inert body on the operating table continues to twitch and pulse.

One of the profoundest pleasures of verse lies in the way a poem’s constituent elements—meter, rhyme, diction—can trigger surprise where meaning alone would suggest there isn’t any. I think of the final stanza of John Crowe Ransom’s splendid “Parting, Without a Sequel,” in which a woman has just put into a mail carrier’s hands a letter severing relations with her lover:

Away went the messenger’s bicycle,
His serpent’s track went up the hill forever,
And all the time she stood there hot as fever
And cold as any icicle.

The concluding metaphor runs very close to cliché (cold as ice?). But the over-all effect is perpetually startling. This is partly because of the rumbling clangor of the trisyllabic rhyme (the biggest and boldest such pairing in the poem) and partly because the introduction of the serpent abruptly conjures up a divine, slithery fall from grace, and partly because the mode of transport itself seems so unlikely—not a truck, or the black horse or hearse of popular imagination, but a wobbly, wayward cousin to a velocipede.