‘A Becoming Exit’: Suicide of Honor in Seneca, Shakespeare, and Mishima

by Paul D. Green

( A revised and expanded version of “ ‘Immortal Longings’:  Suicide of Honor in Seneca, Shakespeare, and Mishima,”  September 2006)

Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c.  4 B.C.-65 A.D.) was one of the most important literary figures of ancient Rome: moralist, Stoic philosopher, and dramatist, as well as tutor to the young Nero and later his unofficial court adviser, he amassed a vast fortune. William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was the greatest playwright and poet of Elizabethan England, as well as a successful businessman and property owner. Yukio Mishima, pseudonym for Kimitake Hiraoka (1925-1970), was a brilliant post-World War II Japanese novelist, short-story writer, poet, dramatist, and essayist, who also directed and starred in movies and had his own army. At first glance these three men, widely separated chronologically and geographically, would seem to have little in common except their stature as writers and their prosperity, but a close look at their writings reveals that the three are united by an interest in suicide, especially the suicide of honor, attempted or successfully completed, by which to die with dignity or reclaim a sense of lost honor.

I shall focus on Seneca’s moral writings; on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Rape of Lucrece (an early narrative poem), two of his Roman plays (Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra), and, more briefly, on Othello and Macbeth; and finally, on a short story of Mishima’s, “Patriotism,” that is probably his best-known work and, artistically, perhaps his most impressive performance. For two of these three writers, as we shall see, suicide of honor was not merely a literary or philosophic interest but also the means by which their lives were formally terminated.

                                    A Becoming Exit

It is a common misconception that classical antiquity approved of and defended all forms of suicide. More accurately, Greek and Roman civilization is characterized by what French suicidologist Albert Bayet has called the “morale nuancée, the nuanced or complex morality, which neither  wholly condemns nor wholly condones suicide, but judges each case on its own merits and shows a high degree of sympathy and tolerance. The morale nuancée, associated with liberty, individualism, and education,  was primarily a phenomenon of the intelligentsia and the aristocracy—not the entire aristocracy but the cultivated and cultured segment of it. Hence the suicides recorded in the literature of Rome (and of Greece as well) are for the most part aristocratic, and the great period of Roman suicides was from the end of the Republic to the early part of the Empire—Rome’s most enlightened days.

Certainly these generalizations apply to Seneca and other Stoic philosophers, who do not advocate suicide on a mass scale. On the contrary, the principles that the Stoics teach are for a small, elite group—the wise, or those who try to become wise through the study of philosophy. The Stoics have aristocrats’ contempt for the majority, whom they consider hopelessly entangled in irrational passions and appetites. Their pronouncements on suicide, as on everything else, are not meant for the unenlightened. Stoics allow suicide only when it is in accord with the dictates of reason; suicide must be calmly and reasonably thought out. Stoicism does not recognize the demands of the passions, so self-destruction motivated by anger, grief, or jealousy is entirely unacceptable.

In his long essay On Anger (De Ira), Seneca condemns the suicide of the mythological warrior Ajax, who in a state of madness kills a flock of sheep under the delusion that he is avenging himself on fellow Greeks who have insulted him. In the psychology of the ancients, almost by definition, madness results from the excesses of passion—thus Seneca’s comment on Ajax’s subsequent suicide: “It was frenzy that drove Ajax to his death, and anger drove him into frenzy”  (Moral Essays, Vol .1:  Book 2, p.251). [i]

With even greater explicitness the Stoic philosophers condemn taking one’s life for no valid reason. Epictetus, a freed slave who became a well-known Stoic teacher, notes in his Discourses that a friend of his made an arbitrary and irrational decision to fast until he should die. The philosopher’s attempts to dissuade him had no effect, and finally Epictetus offered his most cogent argument: so useless a suicide is equivalent to murder ( Book 2, chap.15, pp.317-321).[ii]

Seneca, too, in his Moral Epistles (Epistulae Morales) warns against hatred of life or the “lust for death” [“libido moriendi”]  (Moral Epistles, Vol.1 : Epistle 24, p.181). [iii]   He is contemptuous of those who feel compelled to take their own lives for what he considers the most “trifling” of reasons:

One hangs himself before the door of his mistress; another hurls himself from the house-top that he may no longer be compelled to bear the taunts of a bad-tempered master; a third, to be saved from arrest after running away, drives a sword into his vitals.  (Epistulae Morales 1: 4.15)

Seneca, in other words, opposes “a  hasty retreat from life,”  in favor of  “a  becoming exit”  (Epistulae Morales 1: 24.181).

What Seneca means by “a becoming exit” is related to his general principles on living a good life. “For mere living,” he asserts, “is not a good[,] but living well.” The wise man is concerned with the “quality, and not the quantity, of his life. As soon as there are many events in his life that give him trouble and disturb his peace of mind, he sets himself free,” in order to die well. “And dying well means escape from the danger of living ill”  (Epistulae Morales 2: 70.59).

Seneca, like other classical writers, almost always treated certain kinds of suicide with sympathy. These included the suicide of honor, the suicide of love, and the suicide of old age, categories which often overlapped. The suicide of honor was an all-embracing category. Political and patriotic suicides were among its subdivisions, as were suicides to avoid defeat, capture, or humiliation by the enemy, and suicide to end guilt or shame.

A major form of political suicide in the ancient world, especially in Athens and later in Rome under the early emperors, was that required by the state as the equivalent of, or an alternative to, legal execution. In Athens the death sentence was often carried out by forcing the prisoner to drink hemlock, as in the well-known case of Socrates, which Seneca cites enthusiastically on numerous occasions. According to Seneca, Socrates, who lived a life consistently grounded in the highest moral principles, is equally an icon of dying well. In Plato’s dialogue The Phaedo Plato’s mentor, Socrates, surrounded by his followers, discourses calmly and eloquently on death and the immortality of the soul while he awaits the arrival of the state-mandated poison; and even after he has drained the cup, he continues discoursing, as Seneca notes, “up to the point of death”  (On Providence, Book 3: Moral Essays 1: 23).

Another one of those public figures who are lauded by Seneca for their courage, integrity, and honorable death is Marcus Regulus, a significant example of the patriotic suicide. Regulus, one of the commanders of the Roman troops in the First Punic War against the Carthaginians, was eventually captured and then sent back to Rome to negotiate a peace treaty, at the same time being made to take an oath to return to the Carthaginians. Regulus advised the Romans that it would be in their interests to continue the war, and then, having done his patriotic duty, he felt obligated to keep his promise to return to the Carthaginians, where he knew certain death—in his case, death by torture—awaited him.

Perhaps the most famous of all the classical suicides of honor, and the one whom Seneca praises almost more than any other, is Marcus Cato the Younger (sometimes referred to as Cato Uticensis—Cato of Utica). Known for his probity (some would say his severity) and his unwillingness to compromise with principles, Cato supported Pompey against Julius Caesar in Rome’s early civil war. When Pompey was defeated and later murdered, Cato preferred to take his own life rather than live, as he thought, without freedom (i.e., under Julius Caesar). [iv]

Seneca tells the frequently heard story that on Cato’s last night he took to bed with him a copy of The Phaedo and a sharp sword—“the first, that he might have the will to die, and the second, that he might have the means.” He dealt himself a serious, but not deadly, wound, which his physicians were able to bind up, but in spite of his weakness from loss of blood, he ripped apart the dressings and ultimately bled to death (Epistulae Morales 1: 24. 169, 171). Seneca’s response to Cato’s life and death speaks for itself: in his essay On Constancy (De Constantia), for example, he refers to Cato as “a truer exemplar of the wise man than … Ulysses and Hercules”  (Moral Essays 1.51); and in On Tranquillity of Mind (De Tranquillitate Animi) he eulogizes Cato as “the living image of all the virtues”  (Moral Essays 2:275).

If Socrates, Regulus, and Cato, all of whom lived well, represent the ability to die well and bravely at the appropriate time, Maecenas is represented by Seneca as a coward. A counselor to the Emperor Augustus as well as a patron and close friend of the poets Virgil and Horace, Maecenas was a sickly man, obsessed with the fear of death, “a curse,” in Seneca’s words, “which lays a curse upon everything else” (Epistulae Morales 3:101. 165). Seneca records the fragment of a poem by Maecenas , “that most debased of prayers, in which Maecenas does not refuse to suffer weakness, deformity, and as a climax the pain of crucifixion—provided only that he may prolong the breath of life amid these sufferings” :

                                    ‘Fashion me with a palsied hand,                                  

                                    Weak of foot, and a cripple;

                                    Build upon me a crook-backed hump;

                                    Shake my teeth till they rattle;

                                    All is well, if my life remains.

                                    Save, oh, save it, I pray you,

                                    Though I sit on the piercing cross!’  (Epistulae Morales 3:  101. 165)

Seneca is livid: “Is it worth while  [sic] to weigh down upon one’s own wound and hang impaled upon a gibbet, that one may but postpone something which is the balm of troubles, the end of punishment?” In contrast to the actions of the honorable suicides who appear in his work, including the notable triumvirate of philosopher, military commander, and statesman, Maecenas seems to be a pathetic example of manhood. “What does he mean by such womanish and indecent verse?”  Seneca asks, with incredulity. “What does he mean by begging so vilely for life?”  (Epistulae Morales 3: 101. 165, 167).

As an additional foil to Maecenas, Seneca’s friend Tullius Marcellinus is presented in a very favorable light. Suffering from a debilitating disease by which he  became “old prematurely,” Marcellinus finally heeded the advice of an unnamed Stoic friend (perhaps Seneca himself?) to “die honorably.” After comforting his sorrowful slaves and dispensing small gifts to each of them, he fasted for three days, then lay in a tub and had hot water continuously poured over him until he gradually and quietly passed away (Epistulae Morales 2:  77. 171, 173).

For many Roman writers suicide to avoid pain—not one-time or short-lived pain, but long-term, intolerable pain that prevented people from functioning normally—was not merely acceptable but, as in the case of Marcellinus, treated as a virtual first cousin to the suicide of honor. In Seneca’s words, “I shall not lay violent hands on myself just because I am in pain, for death under such circumstances is defeat. But if I find out that the pain must always be endured I shall depart, not because of the pain but because it will be a hindrance to me as regards all my reasons for living”  (Epistulae Morales 1: 58. 409).              

One final point about Seneca’s attitude toward suicide of honor: in spite of his predilections for the educated, the upper classes, and the well-to-do, he does cite several instances of valiant suicides not falling into one or more of these categories—“men of the meanest lot in life” who, 

when they were not  allowed to die at their own convenience, or to suit themselves in  their choice  of the instruments of death… have snatched up whatever was lying ready to hand, and by sheer strength have turned objects which were by nature harmless into weapons of their own.  (Epistulae Morales 2: 70. 67)

Two such examples were captives trained to be gladiators: one stuffed a sponge-tipped stick, used in the public lavatory for personal hygiene, down his throat and choked to death; the other, on a wagon carrying him to a gladiatorial performance, broke his neck by allowing his head to get caught in the spokes of a revolving wheel. Though the nature of their deaths was inelegant, Seneca praises the resourcefulness of these two men who were determined to die by their own hand rather than endure the ignominious end that lay in store for them in the arena  (Epistulae Morales 2: 70. 67, 69).

Seneca’s own death by suicide occurred after the cruel and unpredictable Nero, believing  that his mentor and longtime adviser was implicated in a political insurrection against him, informed the aged philosopher that his earthly existence was no longer desirable. In Rome suicide to escape formal execution reached its apex under Nero. Official condemnation from the Emperor was usually followed by brutal assassination at the hands of his storm troopers, and many—like Seneca—preferred the more dignified alternative of suicide.

Throughout his writings Seneca declares many times that the true test of a man’s character is the way he faces death. If we can judge from the sympathetic description of his death by the Roman historian Tacitus, Seneca’s virtue was unquestioned, at least in death. As in the death of his idol Socrates, the Roman philosopher and moralist, who accepted his fate bravely, rebuked his friends for weeping, reminded them of the lofty philosophic precepts which teach us how to behave in adversity, and then, simply and unhesitatingly, cut his arteries to end his life. According to Tacitus,  his death was “protracted and slow.” After cutting his arteries, he was given hemlock (like Socrates) by a good friend. But even that was ineffective—and finally he was “lifted into a bath, suffocated by the vapours, and cremated without ceremony” (Annals, Book 15, chaps. 62-64, pp.315-319). [v]


More than fifteen centuries after Seneca’s death, Shakespeare focused on the suicide of honor, primarily, though not exclusively, in various Roman contexts. Though I shall emphasize the suicide of honor, it is perhaps not out of place to note that, like Seneca and other ancient writers, Shakespeare espouses the morale nuancée, with its shifting perspectives. As early as  1912 James Holly Hanford, in his PMLA article “Suicide in the Plays of Shakespeare,” refutes the contention of John Churton Collins that in Shakespeare’s plays “in no case is [suicide] associated with honor, but in all cases with intemperance or ignominy, or with both. …”  (p.380). Hanford asserts that from play to play, and even within each play, the attitude varies; and often, especially in the Roman plays,  suicide is seen in a positive—indeed, an enthusiastic—light.

                                                      More an Antique Roman Than a Dane

Even in non-Roman contexts Shakespeare cannot be pinned down to a single approach (i.e., a negative approach, referred to as the morale simple by Albert Bayet, and in Shakespeare sometimes appearing as Christian prohibition). For example, within a work as elusive as Hamlet the Danish prince, in one of his despairing moods, fervently wishes at the beginning  of the play that the “Everlasting had not fixed/His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter” (1.2.131-132).[vi]  Likewise, in his “To be, or not to be” soliloquy (3.1.58-90), perhaps the best-known passage in the play, Hamlet again broods on suicide, but is deterred by “the dread of something after death,/ The undiscovered country from whose bourn/ No traveller returns” (3.1.80-82).

In an early, albeit problematic, version of Hamlet  (Quarto 1, the so-called Bad Quarto of 1603) this soliloquy of Hamlet’s has more-explicit Christian allusions:


                                    To die, to sleep: is that all? Ay, all.

                                    No, … .

                                    For in that dream of death, when we awake,

                                    And borne before an everlasting judge

                                    From whence no passenger ever returned,

                                    The undiscovered country at whose sight

                                    The happy smile and the accursed damned—

                                    But for this, the joyful hope of this,

                                    Who’d bear the scorns and flattery of the world,


                                    When that he may his full quietus make

                                    With a bare bodkin? 

                                           (qtd. in Norton Shakespeare, p.1692)

Thus, from the evidence in the play, Hamlet appears to accept the Christian prohibition against suicide [i.e. , the morale simple], and after the “To be or not to be” soliloquy, he never again mentions the possibility of killing himself.

In the well-known graveyard scene in Act 5, the First Clown (a gravedigger), anticipating the burial of Ophelia, asks, in a controversial malapropism, “Is she to be buried in Christian burial that willfully seeks her own salvation? “ (5.2.1-2)—a point of view reiterated more formally by the officiating priest shortly thereafter:

                                       Her death was doubtful,

                                    And but that great command o’ersways the order

                                    She should in ground unsanctified have lodged

                                    Till the last trumpet.


In other words, without the intervention of Claudius, King of Denmark, ecclesiastical authorities would not have permitted Ophelia, a possible suicide, to be buried in sacred ground. The priest’s bitter remark about this obvious double standard based on social class is anticipated by the earlier observation of the Second Gravedigger: “If this had not been a gentlewoman, she should have been buried out o’ Christian burial” (5.1.22-24). The key word in the priest’s comment is that Ophelia’s death is “doubtful,” not an undeniable case of suicide, but religious authorities wish to treat it as if it were. James Holly Hanford’s comment on this scene is consistent with his general refutation of the idea that Shakespeare’s view of suicide is always negative: “At the scene of the burial  of Ophelia the sympathies of the audience are enlisted against the bigoted priest who represents the stern attitude of the church” (p.383)  [emphasis mine].  In a similar comment not focused specifically on Ophelia’s death, Larry R. Kirkland has suggested that “the softer feelings toward suicide engendered in Shakespeare’s plays stand in some contrast to the harsh official attitudes and policies of the day” (p.665).

To contextualize these “harsh official attitudes and policies” to which Hanford and Kirkland  allude, cultural historian Michael MacDonald closely examines the burial scene of Ophelia from the perspective of Elizabethan attitudes toward suicide. Having examined laws against suicide in public records of the period, as well as statistics and specific examples of coroners’ verdicts on those adjudged to be possible suicides, MacDonald points out that “suicide was a heinous crime in early modern England, and the law against it was rigorously enforced.” Moreover, “prior to about 1660, the non compos mentis verdict [of coroners’ juries]–a decision of insanity or at least mental instability—was very seldom used” ( “Ophelia’s Maimèd Rites,”p.310). Paradoxically, …”when juries did on occasion find suicides lunatics, the officials sometimes enforced the penalties for self-murder anyway” (p.312).

As for the nature of Ophelia’s death, MacDonald notes that

drowning was one of the most frequent causes of accidental death in Tudor and Stuart England, and it was obviously difficult in many cases to be sure that people found drowned in a pond or river had actually committed suicide. Juries nevertheless returned large numbers of drowned bodies as felones de se [i.e., self-murderers] (p.311). [vii] 

Perhaps one final point about Ophelia’s drowning needs to be made. Determining whether Ophelia’s death is suicide is made especially difficult in the play by its third-hand (or even fourth-hand) presentation, from some assumed eyewitness or eyewitnesses to the drowning, then possibly from a Danish courtier to whom the sad news has been related, before it’s announced to Gertrude, who repeats what she has heard to Laertes and Claudius.

Judging from the variety of responses in Hamlet to the death and burial of Ophelia, we appear to be dealing here with a solid example of the morale nuancée.  With the exception of the priest and the two gravediggers, who don’t approve of Ophelia’s burial in sacred ground, all of the other characters in the scene—Claudius, Gertrude, Laertes, Hamlet  (in spite of his pronouncements against suicide),  and Horatio—are profoundly sympathetic to Ophelia. There is also some ambiguity in the pronouncements of the secular officials: the Second Clown/gravedigger reports that the “coroner hath sat on her [i.e., conducted an inquest], and finds it Christian burial” (5.1.4-5). Even the king’s intervention on behalf of Ophelia, a “gentlewoman,” highlights the point that the aristocracy enjoyed privileges unknown to the masses, and suggests additional levels of complexity with respect to the fate of someone ruled  a possible suicide.  

In terms of attitudes toward suicide, however, the different views on Ophelia’s death are not the only complications in the play. Horatio, Hamlet’s best friend and former fellow student, seems to embody at different times conflicting views on suicide. Early in Hamlet  Horatio and the guard Marcellus  try to prevent the prince from following his father’s ghost up to the battlements, for fear that the ghost, who might be a demon in disguise, could possibly instill in him the idea of suicide by leaping off the tower into the sea below. Granted, the two are concerned about Hamlet’s safety, but from a Christian perspective they are also fearful for Hamlet’s soul. It was common during the Early Modern Period to see Satan as a clever psychologist who would scrutinize his victims carefully to find an appropriate strategy to lure them to perdition:

                                    What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord,

                                    Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff


                                    And there assume some other horrible form

                                    Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason

                                    And draw you into madness? … .

                                    The very place puts toys of desperation,

                                    Without more motive [i.e., cause], into every brain

                                    That looks so many fathoms to the sea

                                    And hears it roar beneath.

                                                      ( 1.4.50-51, 53-55, 55.1-55.4). [viii]

In this scene Horatio appears to espouse the standard Christian view against suicide, but at the end of the play, when Hamlet lies dying, Horatio has to be forcibly restrained from joining his lord in death ( a variation on the suicide of honor), in order that he might set the record straight about the strange series of deaths that end the play. Though Horatio remains alive, this final example of his unswerving devotion to Hamlet evokes strong admiration in readers and spectators –something akin to a parallel in readers’ and spectators’ sympathy for the death of Ophelia. His spontaneous utterance as Hamlet wrestles with him for the poisoned cup, “I am more an antique Roman than a Dane” (5.2.283), highlights the indissoluble association between the culture of ancient Rome and the suicide (or, as in this case, near-suicide) of honor in its multiple forms. [ix]  With his conflicting views on suicide, Horatio embodies the morale nuancée, for his attitude appears to vary with the circumstance.

It is clear that Hamlet contains more complex views of suicide than any other play of Shakespeare. Hamlet himself, in his reservations about committing suicide, represents the standard Christian view against self-killing and is thus allied with the priest and the gravediggers of the burial scene, except (as I  noted above) that his feelings for Ophelia—“I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers/ Could not, with all their quantity of love, /Make up my sum” (5.1. 254-256)—would seem to preclude the possibility that he opposes her burial, especially since he tells Laertes, “Be buried quick [i.e., alive] with her, and so will I” (5.1. 264).  In spite of Christian teachings and the rigorous secular laws in Tudor England against self-destruction, Ophelia’s suicide, as we have seen,  is clouded by multiple levels of ambiguity; and in the case of Horatio, his strict Christian horror toward Hamlet’s possible suicide does battle with his Roman tendencies to join his lord in death.                       

                                    Playing the Roman fool

The titular hero of Othello, who is not a Roman but is a valiant soldier, takes the honorable way out by killing himself. Indeed, Othello uses the words “honour” (5.2.252, 301) and “honourable” (5.2.300) to describe himself and his intended action shortly before he commits suicide, which is his way of punishing himself for the murder of his beloved Desdemona and, implicitly, of escaping the humiliation of being brought before the Venetian authorities for sentencing. [x]  At the same time, realizing the horrible act he has committed in murdering his innocent wife, he appears to suggest that he will be damned for it  (5.2.280-288) and—though he doesn’t explicitly say so—for taking his own life , which is equally punishable by damnation according to Christian theology. Thus, in a Shakespearean paradox—and like Horatio—Othello embodies conflicting views of suicide.

In contrast to the suicide of Othello and the suicidal intention of Horatio, Macbeth, who is also a valiant soldier, chooses, in the last scene of the play, to go down fighting rather than take his own life: “Why should I play the Roman fool, and die / On mine own sword ?  Whiles I see lives, the gashes/ Do better upon them” (5.10. 1-3). [xi]

                                    ‘Tis Honor to Deprive Dishonoured Life

One of Shakespeare’s early works, his long narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece  (1594), which some have seen as an influence on Macbeth, [xii]  centers on suicide to redeem lost honor. Drawing on the Roman historian Livy and Shakespeare’s favorite Latin poet, Ovid, this poem tells the story of the Roman matron Lucretia (Lucrece), who is raped by Sextus Tarquinius (Tarquin), a military officer, good friend of her husband Collatinus (Collatine), and heir apparent to the Roman throne. Besides the brutal rape, the poem deals with other important moral issues, including the betrayal of friendship, the violation of the code of hospitality, and the general victimization of women.

Tarquin shows up unexpectedly at the home of Lucrece, who is alone; he is treated courteously and given lodging for the night. Though Tarquin weighs the pros and cons of taking Lucrece by force, and though, after he finally enters her bedroom, she pleads with him (using some of the same arguments he has used on himself), desire finally wins out in his “disputation/ ‘Tween frozen conscience and hot-burning will” (lines 246-247).

After the rape Lucrece sees no recourse but death. From antiquity to the Early Modern Period honor for women in the private sector was often narrowly defined as chastity and marital fidelity. Lucrece uses the terms “honor” and “dishonor” and related forms a number of times. In at least one stanza she uses them four times in three lines: “My honour I’ll bequeath unto the knife/ That wounds my body so dishonourèd./ ‘Tis  honour to deprive dishonoured life.”  And in the last line of that stanza she concludes that in her death, “mine honour is new born” (lines 1184-1186, 1190).

She believes that the violation of her body no longer allows her to be considered a loyal wife. But in so believing, she makes no distinction between adultery, in which presumably there is equal complicity, and rape. In a seminal discussion of Lucretia’s suicide in Book I  of The City of God, St. Augustine raises these and related topics as he analyzes whether or not she should have killed herself. He is explicit that when a woman is physically violated, “then the guilt attaches only to the ravisher and not at all to the woman forcibly ravished without any consent on her part” (p.28). [xiii]  Citing an anonymous speaker on this subject, St. Augustine continues his analysis with this illuminating insight: “A paradox! There were two persons involved, and only one committed adultery. … The speaker observed in the union of two bodies the disgusting lechery of the one, the chaste intention of the other, and he saw in that act not the conjunction of their bodies but the diversity of their minds” (p.24).

If Lucretia, he continues, is not guilty of a serious crime—i.e., adultery—then she was in the wrong to find herself guilty and be her own executioner. (Thomas Aquinas would later expand on this idea that no person may be judge, jury, and executioner of himself/herself.)

St. Augustine concludes that there is one of two ways of evaluating her case: 1) either her self-punishment results from her awareness that there was some “hidden consent” to this “adulterous” act, and “then she did not kill an innocent”;  or 2) she was completely chaste and therefore committed gratuitous murder against herself (p.30). We are aware, of course, that Augustine is writing as a Christian theologian about a pre-Christian suicide, and that his influential view that the Biblical commandment “Thou shalt not kill” refers to oneself as well as others (pp.31-32) helped establish suicide as a cardinal Christian sin in subsequent theology. Nonetheless, his comments on Lucretia’s suicide are incisive and useful for Shakespeare’s readers. (It is not clear whether Shakespeare himself knew The City of God directly.)

Shakespeare’s Lucrece is neither philosopher nor theologian but a woman overwhelmed by the atrocity perpetrated against her. She considers the damage irreparable; she applies words like “stained” and “polluted” to herself, conjuring up not merely the literal sexual nature of the crime but also  the ruin  of her most prized physical possession: her unspotted body, referred  to as  stolen “treasure” (line 1056) and “that dear jewel I have lost” (line 1191). She fears for her husband Collatine’s reputation as well as her own, envisioning with horror a boastful Tarquin telling his comrades with a smirk at some time in the future that a newly born child of Lucrece’s was actually sired by him, not by Collatine.  (She seems to assume that he may have impregnated her, but that even if he hasn’t, he is likely to tell others that Collatine is  “doting father of his [i.e., Tarquin’s] fruit” (lines 1062-1064).

Shakespeare, who understands the human psyche so well, provides legitimate concerns for Lucrece, and unlike Lucrece herself, the poet holds her entirely guiltless: “Not that devoured, but that which doth devour,/Is worthy blame. O, let it not be held/ Poor women’s faults that they are so full-filled [i.e., filled full] / With men’s abuses…” (lines 1256-1259).

At first, torn between living and dying, she is momentarily deterred by the thought, unusual for a non-Christian, that suicide might jeopardize her soul, but the anguish of guilt and shame is so great  that she is determined to die and, given the fact that her rapist is a soldier, expresses her wish in an appropriate military metaphor: “ ‘Then let it not be called impiety/ If in this blemished fort I make some hole /Through which I may convey this troubled soul’ ”(lines 1174-1176). But she is resolved to have her revenge on Tarquin, and so “ ‘die I will not,’ ” she insists, “ ‘till my Collatine/ Have heard the cause of my untimely death,’ ”  (lines 1177-1178), and to that end she pens a somewhat distracted note to him to be delivered by one of her faithful servants.

When Collatine finally arrives, accompanied by fellow soldiers (anachronistically called knights) and by her father Lucretius, she begins slowly and cautiously: “ ‘Dear husband, in the interest of thy bed/ A stranger came, and on that pillow lay/ Where thou wast wont to rest thy weary head’ ” (lines 1619-1621). Then she introduces the violent details: the “stranger’s” brandishing of his sword; the threat that if she resists, he will kill not only her but one of her slaves, tie them together, and declare that he caught them in the act of adultery; and finally, after overpowering her, the consummation of his “scarlet lust” (line 1650). But not until she has made all the men swear to avenge her dishonor does she identify the “stranger” as Tarquin.

Just before she kills herself, she proclaims that if physically she is “ ‘stained with this abuse,/ Immaculate and spotless is my mind./  That was not forced’ ” (lines 1655-1657)—a key concept in St. Augustine’s analysis of a rape victim. And Lucrece’s male spectators echo her sentiments: “ ‘They all at once began to say/ Her body’s stain her mind untainted clears’ ”(lines 1709-1710). But even their collective agreement of her guiltlessness is not enough to keep her from stabbing herself in order to free her troubled soul from the “polluted prison” of her body (line 1726). [xiv]

Three factors, however, seem to detract from Lucrece’s heroic act. First, as her cousin, Junius Brutus, points out to Collatine, “Thy wretched wife mistook the matter so/ To slay herself, that should have slain her foe” (lines 1826-1827). Second, right after her suicide there is the patriarchal squabbling between her father and her husband about who had the greater right to her; i.e., they fight over her as over a piece of property, which in both classical antiquity (in which the poem is set) and the Early Modern Period (in which it was written) is a fairly accurate description of female status. Thus her father says, “ ‘She’s mine’ ”… (line 1795). And Collatine replies, “ ‘She was my wife./ I owed [i.e., owned] her, and ‘tis mine that she hath killed’ ” (lines 1802-1803). In other words, the body that Lucrece was so concerned about keeping pure and unpolluted for her husband is, at some level, seen by Collatine, after news of the rape, as damaged goods, and after her suicide, as totally demolished property, formerly his. His response, in short, is that he, and not his wife, was the owner of her body, which she therefore had no right to destroy. Third, what diminishes Lucrece’s self-sacrifice is the nature of Tarquin’s punishment. Though she wanted him killed, the publicity about his repulsive deed to Lucrece, terminating in the display of “her bleeding body thorough [i.e., throughout] Rome,” leads instead to “Tarquin’s everlasting banishment” (lines 1851, 1855).

St. Augustine notices the inequity here, as well as the tragic irony. “But how was it,” he asks, “that she who did not commit adultery received the heavier punishment? For the adulterer was driven from his country, with his father; his victim suffered the supreme penalty” (p.29).[xv]

  And With This Good Sword

In  Julius Caesar (c. 1599), written about five years after The Rape of Lucrece, Shakespeare turns from what is essentially a private, domestic tragedy with political repercussions to a larger, public tragedy played out in the Roman Forum, in the Senate, and on the battlefield. Despite the title the play is not really about Julius Caesar, who is assassinated in the third act, but about the high-minded, public-spirited idealist Marcus Brutus, invariably reflecting on what is best for Rome. Brutus is drawn into a conspiracy by his friend and brother-in-law, Caius Cassius, to murder Julius Caesar, considered a threat to Rome’s liberty. Cassius is a foil for Brutus: more personally motivated against Caesar, occasionally somewhat mean-spirited, and willing to compromise with morality. (Brutus accuses him, during a famous confrontation, of taking bribes, but they are eventually reconciled.) Cassius is also much more practical and realistic than Brutus. If Cassius had prevailed, instead of Brutus, in some of their important strategic decisions—for instance, the decision not to murder Mark Antony along with Caesar, or later, after Caesar has been struck down, the decision to allow Antony to deliver a funeral oration for Caesar in the public forum, where he inflames the citizens against the conspirators with brilliant rhetoric and equally brilliant psychology—the history of Rome, not to mention the plot of Shakespeare’s play, would have been quite different.

Although both Cassius and Brutus end up as suicides of honor in the ensuing civil war, in which they face Antony and Octavius as their mighty opposites on the plains of Philippi, their deaths take place in separate scenes, with each anticipating imminent defeat. Their contrasting personalities notwithstanding, the two generals are valiant soldiers, not afraid of death, and preferring death to dishonor. But early in the fifth act, when Cassius questions Brutus, “If we do lose this battle,…/ What are you then determinèd to do?”  (5.1.97-99), Brutus’ response is rather curious, if not shocking. This son-in-law of Marcus Cato the Younger, the patriot who has been rhapsodized by Seneca and so many others, admits that he “did blame Cato for the death/ Which he did give himself—I know not how,/ But I do find it cowardly and vile/ For fear of what might fall so to prevent [i.e., cut short]/ The time of life…”  Brutus will instead arm himself “with patience” (5.1.101-105).

The unexpectedness of this response is in part due to Brutus’ well-known acceptance of Stoic teachings to which Cato also subscribed; the “patience” that Brutus insists he will demonstrate is a major Stoic virtue. (One might say that Lucrece, as sympathetic as she is, is nevertheless lacking in that virtue.)  What he seems to be reacting to in this minority view of his father-in-law’s death is that there was no impending threat, but rather a nonspecific, indeterminate threat of capture or disgrace for Cato. Brutus seems to come close to accusing his father-in-law of what Seneca terms “ a lust for dying.”

Justifiably, Mark Sacharoff refers to Brutus’ remarks on Cato as “the most controversial passage in Julius Caesar” (“Suicide and Brutus’ Philosophy…,” p.115). Sacharoff rejects the notion that Brutus refers to Stoicism in condemning his father-in-law’s death—“Even by the rule of that philosophy/ By which I did blame Cato for the death/Which he did give himself” (5.100-102)—but instead insists that Brutus is thinking of philosophies less tolerant of suicide, like Plato’s, Aristotle’s, and Plotinus’, as well as the “neo-Stoicism of Shakespeare’s period, and Saint Augustine’s” (pp.118-119).[xvi]

To further explain the possible source of Brutus’ strange remark about his father-in-law, Cato, Sacharoff traces in some detail the complicated historical relationship between Cato and Brutus—uncle and nephew, teacher and student—and the relationship of both men with Caesar, which probably led, he believes, to a division between them (pp.120-122). Oddly enough, he doesn’t mention that Brutus was also Cato’s son-in-law.

When Cassius presses Brutus further on his intentions—“Then, if we lose this battle, / You are contented to be led in triumph / Thorough [i.e., through] the streets of Rome?”—Brutus’ response this time is less ambiguous:

                    No, Cassius, no.

                  Think not, thou noble Roman,

               That ever Brutus will go bound to Rome.

                   He bears too great a mind. …


The implication here is that when the possibility of defeat, with attendant disgrace, is immediate and         specific, Brutus will take appropriate action.

Cassius’ suicide comes first, but it follows hard on the heels of a grievous error in judgment. When Pindarus, his bondman, who has better eyesight than Cassius, reports that Titinius , Cassius’ best friend, is being pursued by troops and is overtaken, Cassius assumes that Titinius has been captured by the enemy. Since it is Cassius who has sent Titinius to report on the nature of those troops seen in the distance, he feels responsible, and so, consumed by guilt, judges himself a coward, “to live so long/ To see my best friend ta’en [i.e., taken] before my face!”  (5.3.34-35). He immediately prepares to kill himself to atone for his supposed misdeed and to forestall what he believes to be inevitable capture by enemy soldiers.

Roman military suicides of honor, as we shall see also with Brutus, as well as in Antony and Cleopatra, often involve two people: the person determined to die and a friend or trusted servant willing to help.[xvii]  In Julius Caesar it is Pindarus who is called upon to be Cassius’ accomplice:

                                    In Parthia did I take thee prisoner,

                                    And then I swore thee, saving of thy life,

                                    That whatsoever I did bid thee do

                                    Thou shouldst attempt it. Come now, keep thine oath.

                                    Now be a freeman, and, with this good sword

                                    That ran through Caesar’s bowels, search this bosom.


And so, with his face covered, Cassius instructs Pindarus one final time: “Guide thou the sword” (5.3.44).

When Titinius, very much alive and uncaptured, soon reappears wearing a garland of laurel, he instinctively senses his friend’s error as soon as he spots Cassius lying on the ground, and he gently speaks to the bleeding corpse:

                                    Why didst thou send me forth, brave Cassius?

                                    Did I not meet thy friends, and did not they

                                    Put on my brows this wreath of victory,

                                    And bid me give it thee?…

                                    Alas, thou hast misconstrued everything.


Before adding to the suicides of honor on the battlefield, Titinius places the garland on Cassius’ brow, picks up Cassius’ sword—“By your leave, gods, this is a Roman’s part” (5.3.88)—stabs himself, and dies. Since Cassius is not only Titinius’ best friend but also his superior officer, it is a point of honor with him, as with Horatio in Hamlet, to join his beloved lord in death (though Horatio doesn’t get to complete his suicide). The deaths of these two close friends, Cassius and Titinius, are good examples of the way in which love and honor can mingle inextricably as motives for suicide.

When Brutus discovers the bodies of the fallen warriors, he delivers a tribute that is among the most moving passages in the play:

                                    Are yet two Romans living such as these?

                                    The last of all the Romans, fare thee well.

                                    It is impossible that ever Rome

                                    Should breed thy fellow. Friends , I owe more tears

                                    To this dead man [i.e., Cassius] than you shall see me pay.—


The sands in the hourglass are running out for Brutus, too, but just before his death and just after the deaths of Cassius and Titinius, Shakespeare provides a crucial scene that emphasizes the two most honorable kinds of death for Roman soldiers: dying heroically in battle or dying of self-inflicted wounds, or the equivalent, to prevent the ignominy of being captured and put on display for the jeering crowds in Rome. Young Marcus Cato represents the first kind. Son of the famous Marcus Cato the Younger, brother of Portia, Brutus’ wife,  and thus brother-in-law to Brutus, he proudly proclaims on the battlefield: I am “a foe to tyrants, and my country’s friend” (5.4.5); and when he is finally cut down by Antony’s men, Lucillius eulogizes him, saying he is as brave as Titinius and honored as Cato’s son.[xviii]

Lucillius, the eulogizer, exemplifies the second kind of heroic death. Pretending to be Brutus, he is captured by enemy soldiers and offers them money to “kill me straight:/ Kill Brutus, and be honoured in his death” (5.4.13-14). But this ploy, which does not work—one of the soldiers runs to tell Antony that Brutus has been taken—has another function: it protects Brutus and gives him a bit more time. When Antony confronts Lucillius and asks for Brutus’ whereabouts, Lucillius’ response acts as both dramatic prognostication and quintessential definition of the suicide of honor:

                                    Safe, Antony, Brutus is safe enough.

                                    I dare assure thee that no enemy

                                    Shall ever take alive the noble Brutus.

                                    The gods defend him from so great a shame.


Shakespeare allows Brutus to be the focus of the last scene in the play (5.5.), in which Brutus’ side is clearly losing the battle. As he and some of his soldiers sit down on a rock to rest, he whispers, first to Clitus and then to Dardanius, to assist him in suicide, and each of them moves away in horror. He then tries Volumnius, an old schoolmate: “Our enemies have beat us to the pit./ It is more worthy to leap in ourselves/ Than tarry till they push us.” Then more directly: “Even for that, our love of old, I prithee,/ Hold thou my sword hilts whilst I run on it.” But Volumnius rejects his plea: “That’s not an office for a friend, my lord” (5.5. 23-25, 27-29).

Finally, as enemy soldiers are within reach, and as Clitus, Dardanius, and Volumnius flee, Brutus gets Strato, a soldier whose “life hath had some smatch [i.e., hint] of honour in it,” to give him the required assistance. And after running on his sword, which Strato is holding for him, Brutus utters his well-known last lines: “Caesar, now be still./ I killed not thee with half so good a will” (5.5. 46, 50-51).[xix]

The responses of his friends and foes to his death are predictable; the former are relieved that he was able to die nobly; the latter venerate the memory of a great man. Strato declares that Brutus is “free from bondage,” and that “no man else has honour by his death” (5.5. 54, 57). Lucillius is grateful that the manner of Brutus’ death confirms what Lucillius told Antony not long ago.  

The conquerors, as befits them, are courteous and respectful. Mark Antony’s repeated irony in his earlier funeral oration for Caesar—“For Brutus is an honorable man” (3.2.79), finally understood as irony by the unsophisticated plebeians—is here converted into sincere admiration, in what amounts to a eulogy for Brutus: “This was the noblest Roman of them all”  (5.5.67). And Octavius, the future Emperor, who has the last line in the play, is equally deferential: “According to his virtue, let us use him,/ With all respect and rites of burial” (5.5.75-76).

I would be remiss if I failed to mention the suicide of Brutus’ wife, Portia, which may or may not qualify as a suicide of honor. Women have a relatively small role in this play about politics and war—the only other female character is Calpurnia, Julius Caesar’s wife—but they remind us that even public figures like Caesar and Brutus have private lives and wives who worry about their husbands.

In Act Two Portia gently chides her husband for not sharing with her the cause of his sleeplessness: his conflicted feelings about Cassius’ invitation to join the conspiracy against Caesar. She reminds her husband that she is not a mere woman, but “a woman that Lord Brutus took to wife,” and besides, “a woman well reputed, Cato’s daughter” (yet another reminder of Cato’s influence on this play). To prove her constancy, she shows him that she has given herself a “voluntary wound/ Here in the thigh. Can I bear that with patience,/ And not my husband’s secrets?” Brutus asks the gods to make him “worthy of this noble wife” and promises to reveal to her shortly what is troubling him (2.1.292, 294, 299-302).

Several scenes later, after Brutus has made good on his promise to impart his secret to her, she nervously awaits news from the Capitol, where the assassination is to take place. Portia appears in no further scenes, and no mention is made of her until the Fourth Act, where her death is mentioned twice: once in the reconciliation scene between Brutus and Cassius  after their bitter argument, and again, somewhat later in the same scene, when Messala brings Brutus word of Portia’s death. We need not get involved in the scholarly arguments about whether both scenes are necessary and intended by the playwright or whether in his haste Shakespeare forgot to delete one of the scenes. Suffice it to say that in the earlier scene, just after Brutus and Cassius have passed angry words, Brutus finally tells Cassius, “Portia is dead,” and Cassius, deeply affected by the news, responds, “How scaped I killing [i.e., being killed] when I crossed you so?” (4.2. 199,202).

With her characteristic concern for her husband’s welfare, “and grief that young Octavius with Mark Antony/Have made themselves so strong,” as Brutus tells Cassius, “she fell distraught,/ And, her attendants absent, swallowed fire” (4.2.205-208). Plutarch, in one of Shakespeare’s major sources, The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, in Sir Thomas North’s Elizabethan translation (1579), explains that she choked to death on hot coals. It is not clear whether she feared for her own safety as well as her husband’s and so took her own life to avoid capture or whether, being “distraught,” she was not fully aware of the nature and consequences of her act. Seneca and other Stoic philosophers assert that suicide of honor is a conscious act on the part of the agent, so whether Portia’s death fits that description is left ambiguous. However, her determination to die, even in such a gruesome manner, reinforces her earlier contention that she is worthy to be the daughter of Cato and the wife of Brutus, not to mention the sister of the young man, also named Cato, soon to die heroically on the battlefield. [xx]

                                    Bravest at the Last

Antony and Cleopatra, one of Shakespeare’s longest plays and one of his last tragedies (c. 1606), is considered by some readers to be one of his greatest achievements. Following the later careers of Mark Antony and Octavius Caesar (hereafter identified as Caesar) after the defeat of Brutus and Cassius, Antony and Cleopatra in a limited sense is a sequel to Julius Caesar. It is a play in which love and honor are interwoven; in fact, the fusion of these motifs provides at least two overarching structural devices that hold the play together. One is frequently commented on: the constant movement between Rome and Egypt, representing Antony’s conflicted loyalties—the political and military ambitions associated with Rome, versus the excessive revelry and exoticism of Egypt symbolized by Cleopatra, the voluptuous serpent of the Nile. Thus he is torn between his honor, which emanates from Rome, and his love, who resides in Egypt.

Increasingly Antony is drawn to Egypt, a situation which pushes to the breaking point the growing tension between Antony and his Roman partner. The original triumvirate of Antony, Caesar, and Marcus Lepidus, formed after Julius Caesar’s assassination, is eventually reduced to two; and inevitably, as Roman history and Shakespeare’s play dramatize, in a full-scale war the two vie for supremacy. Octavius Caesar is the victor.

Another important structural device, on which less attention has been focused, is a series of parallels between the two lovers, Antony and Cleopatra, by which Shakespeare shows us how very human they are, flawed in their greatness, how very much alike in spite of basic differences, and how suited to each other.

A few examples will suffice. Superficially both Antony and Cleopatra call attention to the fact  that they are no longer young. Plutarch’s Lives, Shakespeare’s primary source here as in Julius Caesar, records that Cleopatra was 38 at her death, and that sources place Antony at 53 or 56  ( “The Life of Marcus Antonius,”  Lives 6: 88).  Cleopatra, who says she is past her “salad days” (1.5.72), is “wrinkled deep in time” (1.5.29; and Antony notes several times that his brown hairs are mingled with gray. Their greatness is emphasized by parallel titles and descriptions. To Charmian, for example, Cleopatra is an “Empress”; to Enobarbus, Antony is an “Emperor.”  On several occasions they are both compared to deities. Cleopatra, in Enobarbus’ famous description of her on her barge, is Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, and on a number of occasions Antony is described as the war god, Mars, traditionally the lover of Venus.

The “triple pillar of the world,” as Antony is called in the first scene of the play (1.1.12), and the Queen of Egypt have their less attractive side. Their jealous, violent natures are reflected in two parallel scenes in which each threatens and attacks an emissary from Rome. Thus, when Cleopatra learns that Antony has married  Caesar’s sister, Octavia, she strikes the messenger, threatens to have him whipped with wire, and then pulls a knife on him. Likewise, when Antony discovers Thidias, a Roman envoy sent by Caesar, taking liberties with Cleopatra, he orders his servants to “whip him,…/ Till like a boy you see him cringe his face,/ And whine aloud for mercy” (3.13. 99-101).

The most important parallels, however, between the two lovers cluster around their suicides, which are movingly and sympathetically presented. For both Antony and Cleopatra, love and honor—grief over loss of the beloved and fear of disgrace as epitomized in the Roman Triumph—are the twin motives, and Cleopatra’s monument, an appropriate backdrop for the death of Antony, serves to prognosticate her own impending death also. Early in the play each one alludes, unconsciously and by means of an apposite image, to his/her death. Cleopatra, thinking of Antony, feeds herself “with most delicious poison” (1.5.27); aboard Pompey’s ship, Antony suggests to his cohorts, through a reference to “soft and delicate Lethe,” a well-known river in Hades, that they drink themselves into oblivion (2.7.103).

Furthermore, both lovers use the conventional comparison of death to sleep. [xxi]  Antony, in fulfillment of an earlier statement that his armor will not be unbuckled “till we do please/ To doff’t [i.e. remove it] for our repose”  (4.4. 12-13), as he prepares for suicide tells his loyal soldier Eros to “unarm” and prepare for “sleep” (4.15.35-36). After Antony’s death Cleopatra, anticipating her own suicide and wondering whether Antony was merely a dream, longs for “such another sleep, that I might see/ But such another man!” (5.2. 75-77). And she envisions Antony rousing himself, as if from sleep, to praise her.

Though Antony in his preparation for suicide specifically mentions Dido and Aeneas, Ovid’s Pyramus and Thisbe, whose story greatly influenced Romeo and Juliet (not to mention A Midsummer Night’s Dream), provide a more striking parallel to Antony and Cleopatra. Though Antony and Cleopatra are middle-aged and experienced, in contrast to the other four, who are young and innocent, all three pairs are star-crossed lovers, with the incompatibility of Rome and Egypt in Antony and Cleopatra replacing the feuding families in Romeo and Juliet and the Ovidian tale. In all three cases a tomb is important as a meeting place (Friar Laurence expects Romeo to be reunited with Juliet at her tomb—though not quite in the way it happens); the men all commit suicide out of the misconception that their women are dead; the women subsequently follow the men’s example of self-inflicted death; and each pair of lovers is buried side by side. Unlike Romeo and Juliet,  Pyramus and Thisbe and Antony and Cleopatra are not formally married. But the latter two, with vaguely defined hope, seek to rectify the situation in suicide. Antony seeks to be “a bridegroom in my death” (4.15. 100); and Cleopatra,  as  she is “again for Cydnus,” the site of their first meeting (5.2. 224), calls Antony “husband,” a title which she could not use while he was alive (5.2. 278). [xxii]

The imagery of marriage reinforces the similarity of the two lovers, hence their rightness for each other, as well as the cruel irony of their situation, which allows them true union only in death. Moreover, since death is a normal concomitant of tragedy, and marriage a frequent characteristic of comedy, a play such as Antony and Cleoopatra that ends in death but anticipates marriage forces us to redefine the conventional boundaries between the two genres. [xxiii]

In addition to being a play about love, Antony and Cleopatra is also a play about honor. For Shakespeare, as we have seen, the suicide of honor, connected especially with the philosophy of Stoicism, was considered pre-eminently Roman.  To use Antony’s phrase, both Antony and Cleopatra are preoccupied with the “disgrace and horror” attendant on marching in a triumphal procession to Rome (4.15.66). Antony paints for Eros a bleak picture of having to follow “the wheeled seat/ Of fortunate Caesar”  (4.15.75-76), and Cleopatra describes for Iras an equally depressing scene of being on public display for “mechanic slaves/  With greasy aprons, rules, and hammers” (5.2. 205-206).

Antony’s suicide to vindicate his tarnished honor substantiates his earlier claim to Octavia: “If I lose mine honour,/  I lose myself” (3.4. 22-23). [xxiv]  Moreover, Cleopatra, who says about the clown with the basket of figs concealing deadly asps,  “ He brings me liberty” (5.2.233), a concept important for the Stoics, is equally determined to flee disgrace and a world which, without Antony, is “no better than a sty” (4.16.64). When the dying Antony previously suggests to Cleopatra, “Of Caesar seek your honour with your safety,” she immediately retorts, “They do not go together” (4.16.48-49).

Shortly after Antony stabs himself, Cleopatra, in a moment of fear that she might be surprised by Caesar’s guards, locks the door to her monument and temporarily refuses to let Antony in. But later, after she has determined to end her life, with “knife, drugs, [or] serpents” (4.16.26), she remains firm in her purpose. Subsequently she has the opportunity of trying out the first item on her list, a knife—or, more accurately, a dagger—which is wrested from her by Proculeius. Ultimately she achieves success by means of her third option, “the pretty worm of Nilus…,/ That kills and pains not” (5.2. 238-239).

Cleopatra demonstrates a stoical disdain of Fortune. She says that Antony’s suicide will cause “the false hussy Fortune [to] break her wheel” (4.16.46), and she contemptuously refers to Caesar as  “Fortune’s knave” [i.e., servant] (5.2.3). Indeed, for Antony, who in bygone days personified the Stoic ideal of austerity (if we can trust the judgment of Caesar), suicide is the only way to reassert his heroic identity. And among the Stoics the very embodiment of the suicide of honor is Marcus Cato of Utica, who, as mentioned earlier, kills himself to avoid falling into Julius Caesar’s hands; thus his reason for dispatching himself is not very different from Antony’s. Judging from Shakespeare’s references in Julius Caesar, it is likely that he was familiar with the details of Cato’s life, if not from Seneca, then almost certainly from Plutarch’s “Life of Cato Utican.”

There is, to be sure, besides the similarity of purpose, another major likeness  between the suicides of Cato and Antony: namely, that neither one is able to destroy himself immediately by falling on his sword. Cato, whose hand is weak from a swelling, cannot muster enough power to finish the job at once; and he eventually completes his task by disemboweling himself. (See Plutarch, “The Life of Cato Utican,” in Lives 5: 174-178.) Antony, whose sword thrust does not dispatch him immediately, but allows him to linger long enough to conduct a final interview with Cleopatra, eventually dies from the force of the wound. Critic Lois Potter has some interesting comments on relatively recent British performances  of Antony and Cleopatra in which Antony’s botched suicide and his prolonged death scene evoked laughter from the audience and, in the case of the Royal Shakespeare Company, even from actor Patrick Stewart, who played Antony (“Assisted Suicides,” pp.116, 119).

For Cleopatra the heroism of her suicide is in reality the final step of a gradual process by which she comes to understand and accept  Roman values. Much has been said and written about her influence on Antony, but perhaps not enough emphasis has been placed on the extent to which Antony has influenced her life and values. At the beginning of the play she seems disconcerted by the fact that Antony has been struck by  a “Roman thought” (1.2. 73), a note of gravity, as opposed to the Egyptian “mirth” to which he is more commonly disposed. But subsequently she learns more about, and participates in, the two major areas of Roman expertise as seen in the play: war and politics. She dons his “sword Philippan” (2.5. 23), used to defeat Brutus and Cassius at Philippi; participates in the Battle of Actium as a fledgling warrior and retreats; helps Antony arm for battle; appears on the battlefield after Antony’s minor victory over Caesar; promises a soldier who has fought exceptionally well “an armour all of gold” that was “a king’s” (4.9. 27); becomes adept very quickly at the art of policy, to the point of succeeding in making “great Caesar ass/ Unpolicied” ( 5.2. 298-299); and dies an unexceptionable Roman death, though the manner of her death by poisonous serpents is not typically Roman.

When Cleopatra first considers suicide, she wonders about its permissibility: “Then is it sin /To rush into the secret house of death/ Ere death dare come to us?” (4.16. 82-84). Unlike Hamlet, however, who ponders a similar problem in a more explicitly Christian context, Cleopatra answers her own question affirmatively: “What’s brave, what’s noble,/ Let’s do it after the high Roman fashion” (4.16. 88-89). Her final act, like Antony’s, reinforces her essential nobility.

In Antony’s death scenes Eros and Cleopatra reaffirm his heroic nature by the dignity of the titles they bestow on him. In ascending social order, Eros calls him “my dear master,/ My captain, and [as Enobarbus has called him],my emperor” (4.15.89-90), and Cleopatra, with less restricted language, refers to him as”noblest of men” and “the crown o’th’ earth” (4.16. 61, 65), among other appellations. Using a parallel technique for Cleopatra, Shakespeare has the Fifth Act re-echo with the abundantly occurring word “queen” and its equivalents. Cleopatra dons her robe and crown before applying the asps to her breast and her arm, thereby fulfilling her “immortal longings” (5.2. 272). Her death scene, one of the most memorable in Shakespeare, is the final dramatic affirmation not merely of her rank but also of her greatness.

In his thought-provoking essay, “Suicide as Message and Metadrama in  English Renaissance Tragedy,”  Richard K. Sanderson, who designates  Cleopatra’s death as the “most overtly ‘artistic’ of all Renaissance stage suicides,”  points out that this “supreme actress,”  who “dresses for the part she will play” (i.e., her own death), “performs the final scene before a sem-imaginary audience consisting of herself, her waiting women, her departed ‘husband’ Antony, and Octavius Caesar…” (p.204).

My concluding parallels in the death scenes of the hero and heroine concern the reactions of those closest to them and the response of Caesar. Without question a major factor in determining the final worth of Antony and Cleopatra is the willingness of their closest friends and subordinates to die for them, an honorable mode of death that we have noticed before. Enobarbus and Eros, the soldiers who are closest to Antony, and their counterparts among Cleopatra’s women, Iras and Charmian, all die in behalf of their master or mistress.

The punishment for desertion that Enobarbus inflicts on himself, a form of self-willed death for leaving Antony when he believes his general is bereft of his wits, is basically an extension of suicide; more simply, it can be identified as a broken heart. [xxv]  When Enobarbus, Antony’s second- in-command and one of the last holdouts to remain with him, finally runs away to join Caesar’s camp, Antony magnanimously sends after him all his worldly goods and possessions that he has left behind. To  atone for his guilt and dishonor, Enobarbus chooses to die in a ditch, in ancient Rome considered an appropriate burial place for worthless, anonymous slaves.

Iras, too, dies of a broken heart as Cleopatra kisses her one last time. Eros and Charmian, on the other hand, pursue more active kinds of self-destruction: the former, before Antony’s death; the latter, after Cleopatra’s. Like his master, Eros falls on his sword; and like her mistress, Charmian applies an asp.

The ultimate loyalty of these four—and I include Enobarbus, who more than compensates for his momentary defection—to follow a master or mistress even in death suggests that Antony and Cleopatra are worth dying for. And the sensitive, hardly jubilant reaction of Caesar, their enemy, to the respective suicides of Antony and Cleopatra adds one final positive element in the evaluation of character. That the basically emotionless Caesar weeps openly at the news of Antony’s suicide indicates how strongly he is affected by the death of his political rival and former brother-in-law, and that he admires Cleopatra’s suicide in spite of his disappointment at losing her for his triumphal procession is clear from his terse comment over her corpse: “Bravest at the last,/ She levelled at our purposes, and, being royal, / Took her own way” (5.2. 325-327).

In the parallel death scenes in which the Roman general and the Egyptian queen face suicide with the courage valued by the ancient Stoics and, we assume, by Shakespeare’s audience (then and now) as well, it is difficult for us to withhold our admiration for two such lovers fleeing a petty, destructive world for that “better world” at which Cleopatra before her suicide can only hint (5.2.2.).

                                    The Front Line of the Spirit

The third member of the literary trio is Yukio Mishima, a Japanese writer born between the two World Wars who produced most of his important work after World War Two. Like Seneca and Shakespeare, he might be said to subscribe to the morale nuancée, for not all forms of suicide are equally acceptable to him. For example, in his 1956 novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion (first English translation in 1959), a young Buddhist priest, physically unattractive and afflicted with a speech disability, burns down a beautiful Zen Buddhist temple. His original intention is to die in the conflagration, but at the last minute he changes his mind and escapes. The novel is based on a true story, but Mishima adapts the events to concentrate in some detail on the mind of a psychopath.

On the other hand, his best-known, frequently anthologized short story, “Patriotism” (1960), deals with what, in Mishima’s opinion, is one of the most heroic ways to die: the suicide of honor. Also based on a real-life incident, an unsuccessful 1936 coup against the Japanese government, “Patriotism” is thus grounded in the past but simultaneously foreshadows Mishima’s ritual suicide a decade after the story appeared.[xxvi]

“Patriotism” begins with a basic summary of the main events of the story, the double suicide of a young soldier and his wife, married for less than half a year, and the brief contents of their suicide notes. The summary reads almost like a newspaper story or an extended obituary, but toward the conclusion of the first paragraph the third-person narrator, with less than journalistic objectivity, offers an opinion of these deaths that no doubt represents the view of Mishima himself: “The last moments of this heroic and dedicated couple were such as to make the gods themselves weep” (p.93). [xxvii]

Having given away the plot, the narrator retraces his steps to focus more slowly on his major interests: the circumstances leading up to the suicides and the nature of those suicides. The events of the tragedy occur within a three-day period, February 26-28, 1936. On the morning of the 26th, thirty-one-year-old Lieutenant Shinji Takeyama is awakened by a bugle call, hurriedly puts on his uniform, and leaves the house. Already as her husband rushes out “into the snowy morning, Reiko [ his twenty-three-year-old wife] had read the determination to die” (p.96).

When he returns on the third day, he confirms her suspicion: “ ‘Tonight I shall cut my stomach’ ” (p.99).[xxviii] His wife’s response indicates her worthiness to be a soldier’s wife: “ ‘ I am ready,’ she said. ‘I ask permission to accompany you’ ”  (p.99).

The reason for his wish to die—and therefore for hers as well—is an impossible dilemma in which he finds himself, with either alternative to action compromising his honor; hence death is the only way out. Several fellow soldiers who are his close friends have participated in a failed coup d’état, and he surmises that he was not asked to take part, even though they knew he shared their political views, out of consideration for him  as a newlywed. He believes, “ ‘I shall be in command of a unit with orders to attack them. … I can’t do it’ ”(  p.99). But that would mean refusing his orders as an officer in the Japanese Imperial Army. Suicide will be for him, to use the Senecan phrase, “a becoming exit.”

Their preparations for death are relatively simple. The Lieutenant shaves, and he and his wife take baths. They share some heated sake—she never having had alcohol before—and then engage in passionate lovemaking for the last time. They dress, he in military uniform, she in a white kimono, and write their suicide notes. Despite their great love for each other and their short time together as a married couple, they face the prospect of death bravely, even happily. Reiko prepares some appetizers to go with their heated sake, as if she were getting ready for another party to entertain her husband’s friends.

Lieutenant Takeyama rejoices that in death he can unite the two most important parts of his life, his honor and his love: “A lonely death on the battlefield, a death beneath the eyes of his beautiful wife…in the sensation that he was now to die in these two dimensions, realizing an impossible union of them both, there was sweetness beyond words” (p.111).

Reiko, unquestionably devoted to her husband, is nonetheless overjoyed that he asks her to be a witness to his suicide and that he trusts her enough to take her own life subsequently; that is, “he did not intend to kill his wife first—he had deferred her death to a time when he would no longer be there to verify it” (p. 100). The only qualification to her happiness is that occasionally tears well up in her eyes as she realizes that she will never see her husband again, though the tears are not permitted to develop into sobs.

Mishima makes a significant contrast between the private world of Lieutenant Takeyama and Reiko—i.e., their home, where intimacy and warmth predominate—and the outside world where February’s wintry cold and snow are symbolic as well as literal. When Lieutenant Takeyama returns on the third day, he bolts the door to exclude the outside world from the last private moments he and Reiko will share. Although he is a soldier and used to performing in public, his self-inflicted death will be private, not viewed by anyone but his wife: “His was a battlefield without glory, a battlefield where none could display deeds of valor: it was the front line of the spirit” (p.104).

An aspect of this opposition between private and public, heat and cold, is that Reiko looks upon her husband as a sun god, and “she was ready, and happy, to be hurtled along to her destruction in that gleaming sun chariot” (p.97).  But after the Lieutenant’s suicide, cold permeates their home. As she sits down at her mirror to apply rouge and lipstick before killing herself, “she was conscious of the dampness and coldness of her husband’s blood in the region of her thighs, and she shivered” (p.116).

Moreover, in order to make it easier for people to find their bodies, she unbolts the door her husband locked hours ago and opens it a crack; not surprisingly, “at once a chill wind blew in… and stars glittered ice cold through the trees in the large house opposite” (p.117). With the death of her husband there is no more warmth.

Reiko’s concern with her physical appearance before death is an interesting touch. Both she and her husband reflect some of their author’s obsession with physical beauty. Mishima emphasizes that both the Lieutenant and Reiko are exceptionally good-looking. In their final rounds of lovemaking they gaze tenderly on each other’s body, knowing that this is the last time they will have such an opportunity. Lieutenant Takeyama, “not without a touch of egocentricity, rejoiced that he would never see this [i.e., his wife’s beauty] crumble in death” (p.105).

There seems to be a “touch” of egocentricity” in Reiko also. As she puts on her makeup one last time, we are told, “This was no longer makeup to please her husband. It was makeup for the world which she would leave behind, and there was a touch of the magnificent and the spectacular in her brushwork” (p.116). When she unbolts the door, part of her motive is that she “did not relish the thought of their two corpses putrifying [sic] before discovery” (p.117).

In works as diverse as “Patriotism” and Antony and Cleopatra there are some noteworthy resemblances.[xxix]  Cleopatra, too, wants to look her best in death. As with Reiko, Cleopatra’s lover is already dead (though she hopes to see him again), but instead of a humiliated figure marching before Roman mobs for their entertainment, she wishes to put on an impressive display, even in death, for Caesar, who will find her corpse. “Give me my robe. Put on my crown,” she instructs her female attendants (5.2.271), and after her death Charmian fixes her crown, which is slightly “awry” (5.2.308). Like Cleopatra, who, with the help of Iras and Charmian, hauls the dying Antony up to her monument, Reiko assists her lover in his final moments, and as with Cleopatra, Reiko is the center of attention in the last scene of the work.

All four lovers hope to see their partners again in the world to come. Antony, who temporarily believes that Cleopatra has betrayed him to Caesar and who mistakenly believes that she has died, intends to commit suicide in order to “o’ertake thee, Cleopatra, and / Weep for my pardon” (4.15.44-45). When Iras dies shortly before her mistress, Cleopatra worries that “if she first meet the curlèd  Antony, /He’ll make demand of her, and spend that kiss /Which is my heaven to have” (5.2. 292-294). Similarly, Lieutenant Takeyama tells Reiko they will soon be meeting their friends, presumably the soldiers that he would be responsible for arresting, “ ‘in the other world. They’ll tease us, I imagine, when they find I’ve brought you with me’ ”  (p. 109).

Though Cleopatra and Reiko die in different ways—one by serpents and the other by means of a small dagger given to her by her mother as part of her trousseau—Antony and Lieutenant Takeyama die from sword wounds and in each case their death is prolonged. Indeed, there are characteristics in common between the venerable samurai tradition of honor among Japanese soldiers and the code of honor among Roman soldiers.

A major distinguishing feature, however, between the suicides in “Patriotism” and those in Shakespeare and Seneca is the overwhelming, even repellent, physical detail with which Mishima describes the deaths of the young couple, especially the Lieutenant’s. Following a prescribed ritual, the young soldier pierces himself with his sword, cuts as deeply as he can, until he eviscerates himself. [xxx] Then, with some assistance from Reiko, who loosens his military collar and becomes at that point a participant as well as a witness, the Lieutenant manages to cut his throat, giving himself literally the death blow. Reiko soon follows by stabbing herself with her dagger.

Mishima himself, sharing some of the disaffections of Lieutenant Takeyama’s fellow soldiers toward the government, committed suicide in much the same ceremonial fashion as the Lieutenant, but with some deviations in style. Mishima’s ritual disembowelment was performed publicly, and his assistant was reportedly a male lover, not his wife. Additional assistance was given by a third person when Mishima’s lover was unable to complete the final act that Mishima had called for: decapitation.

Seneca, Shakespeare, and Mishima all tend to make distinctions among various kinds of suicide, accepting some and condemning others. As a rule, though, all three writers treat the suicide of honor with respect and even enthusiasm. In some cases, such as “Patriotism” and Antony and Cleopatra, love and honor are inseparable, and the combination makes the respective suicides all the more positive. For all three major writers, suicides who die without relinquishing their honor leave this world, in Seneca’s useful phrase, in a “becoming exit.”


[i]    Citations from Seneca’s Moral  Essays are from the 3-volume Loeb Classical Library edition, edited and translated by John W. Basore. Future citations from the Moral Essays  will be given in abbreviated form : e.g.,

1: 2.251. if the title of a specific essay is given in the text  (e.g., On Anger), only the volume and page number (s) will be cited: 1:251.

[ii]    The citation from Epictetus is taken from Vol. 1 of the 2-volume Loeb Classical Library series, edited and translated by W.A. Oldfather.

[iii]    Citations from Seneca’s Epistulae Morales are from the 3-volume edition in the Loeb Classical Library, edited and translated by Richard M. Gummere. Future references to this work will be in abbreviated form.

[iv]    Plutarch’s  “Life of Cato Utican”  [i.e., Cato the Younger]  is a very reliable and readable biography. See Sir Thomas North’s  1579 translation (with which Shakespeare was quite familiar) : Plutarch’s Lives 5: 109-179; for Cato’s last hours, including his death, see pp. 174-178. For Cato’s  participation in (and influence on) Roman politics in the later Roman Republic, see Lily Ross Taylor, Party Politics in the Age of Caesar, especially  Chapter 6, “Cato and the Populares,” pp.119-139, and chapter 8,” Catonism and Caesarism,” pp.162-182. Taylor deals very briefly with Cato’s death, on p.167.

[v]    Tacitus’ account of Seneca’s last days, including his death, is taken from the Annals, in Volume 4 of the Loeb Classical Library edition of the works of Tacitus. John Jackson is the editor and translator of the Annals.

[vi]   Citations of Shakespeare are from The Norton Shakespeare, 2nd edition, edited by Stephen Greenblatt et al.

[vii]   Another excellent study of Ophelia’s suicide is by Barbara Smith,  who also attempts to contextualize it in some detail, by investigating theological, legal, and political aspects of suicide in the Early Modern  Period, as well as relevant moral and psychological concerns.  Smith seems to accept that Ophelia’s death is a complicated form of suicide, but that madness is not its chief cause.  At the beginning of her erudite essay, she states her basic purpose:  …“The play, sympathetic to Ophelia’s mental state, rejects the simplistic rigidity of canon and civil law and allows Ophelia salvation” (pp.96-97).  In a number of ways, then, her view is similar to Hanford’s and Kirkland’s.

      In an enlightening essay about the treatment of Shakespeare’s   plays in Japan,  we get another perspective on Ophelia.  Tetsuo Kishi notes that in 1886 a “competent and prolific hack called Robin Kanagaki (1829-1894) published a Japanese version of Hamlet,  ‘The Portrait of Hamlet Drawn in Japanese Style’ ”  (p.111). This Japanese version takes many liberties with Shakespeare’s plot (pp.111-113). Among those liberties is that Ophelia’s death is hardly “doubtful” :  she deliberately kills herself by “throw[ing] herself into a large pond in the castle garden,”  knowing that Hamlet has killed her father (p.112). Kanagaki’s version of Hamlet was “never wholly staged until 1991” (p.111).

[viii]  As Stephen Greenblatt  observes in his notes on Hamlet in the Norton Shakespeare (p. 1711, note 4), lines 55.1 to 55.4  (printed here, as in the Norton text,  in italics) appear in Quarto  2 [the Second Quarto edition of Hamlet, the so-called Good Quarto of 1604] but not in the First Folio edition of 1623, containing almost all of Shakespeare’s plays that we acknowledge today.

      For an analogous scene in King Lear, in which Edgar tries to discourage his father, Gloucester, from jumping off a cliff, see King Lear 4.6. 1-80, the Conflated Text edition in the Norton Shakespeare, pp.2548-2550. Edgar, too, connects suicide with demonic instigation.

       And for the concept of Satan as a psychologist who attempts first to investigate, and then to destroy, his victims, see Paul D. Green, “Suicide, Martyrdom, and Thomas More,” pp.145-146. Also, see Michael  MacDonald,

“The Medicalization of Suicide in England,”  pp.71 ,72, 74, 81. This essay is a compendious study of changes  in attitudes  toward suicide in England from the mid-16th to the late-19th century.

[ix]   MacDonald, “Ophelia’s  Maimd  Rites,” pp.315-316, note 19, suggests a less positive interpretation of

Horatio’s near-suicide: “It is possible to hear in the final exchange between Hamlet and Horatio an echo of the famous objection , derived from Pythagoras by way of Cicero, that the suicide forsakes his duty like a soldier who deserts his post…”

[x]  In a provocative essay, Derek Cohen uses the suicide of Othello as a way of bringing together some of the complex issues of the play, especially patriarchy and racism.

[xi]  In “Macbeth’s Suicide,” Arthur Kirsch analyzes the bleak environment of  Macbeth in some detail, concluding that, from beginning to end, Macbeth and his wife have implied death wishes:  Lady Macbeth’s death wish is fulfilled in her suicide, whereas for Macbeth, who , by the end of the play, has also lost all reason to live, the fulfillment of his death wish comes, we infer, in his climactic battle with Macduff.  Kirsch examines much of the play through the perspective of Freudian and Augustinian theory.

[xii]  See Arthur Kirsch, “Macbeth’s Suicide,” pp.271-273, 291, and 292. See also Michael C. Clody, “Orpheus,  Unseen: Lucrece’s  Cancellation Fantasy,” p.450.

[xiii]  Citations from The City of God are from the Penguin Books edition, translated by Harry Bettenson.

[xiv]  The concept of the body as a “prison”  from which the soul is freed by death  is commonly found in Plato,  especially the Phaedo.

[xv]  For an intriguing essay on the impact of  Lucrece’s rape and subsequent suicide in helping scholars and theater directors  determine  whether Lavinia in Titus Andronicus is actually a suicide rather than,  as she is usually considered,  a murder victim, see Sonya  Freeman Loftis, “The Suicide of Lavinia: Finding Rome in Titus Andronicus.”

[xvi]   Katharine Eisaman Maus, the editor of Julius Caesar  in The Norton Shakespeare,  in her note to Act 5, Scene 1, line 100-102, states that  the reference is to “Plato, who rejected suicide” and whom “Brutus admired” (p. 1606, note 2). Without making  a final decision on the philosopher or philosophy involved in Brutus’ controversial remark,  Sacharoff  finds a “small but significant piece of evidence  for the Platonic element in Brutus’ thinking.”  He makes his point by quoting Plutarch’s Life of Brutus:  “Now touching the Grecian philosophers, there was no sect nor philosopher of them, but he heard and  liked it: but above all the rest, he loved Platoes sect best” (p.119). It is indisputable that Shakespeare knew Plutarch’s Lives in Sir Thomas North’s Elizabethan translation.

[xvii]   Today we might refer to this procedure as assisted suicide, though in our own time this term has very different implications from those in Shakespeare’s Roman plays. For a brief but lively discussion of “assisted suicide” in Shakespeare, including some non-Roman plays, such as Romeo and Juliet  (with the Apothecary as Romeo’s “assistant” ), see Larry R. Kirkland, pp.662-663.

[xviii]  At the end of Plutarch’s “Life of Cato Utican” he briefly mentions Cato’s son as having died honorably at Philippi: Plutarch’s Lives 5:179; also, in somewhat more detail, the death of Cato’s son is mentioned in “The Life of Marcus Brutus,”  Plutarch’s Lives 6:232.

[xix]  Plutarch, “Life of Brutus,” reports two possible versions of Brutus’ suicide: one, that he “ran him selfe through” with his own sword, and the other, that Strato held his sword for him (6:235)—the latter, of course, being the version Shakespeare chose.

[xx]  Plutarch’s account of Portia’s death does not really clarify the situation. In the last paragraph of his Life of Brutus (6: 236), he writes that two sources, including Valerius Maximus, “doe wryte, that she determining to kill her selfe… tooke hotte burning coles, and cast them into her mouth so close, that she choked her selfe.”  But to further the complication Plutarch adds: “There was a letter of Brutus found written to his frendes, complaining of their negligence, that his wife being sicke, they would not helpe her, but suffred  her to killl her selfe, choosing to dye, rather than to languish in paine.”

[xxi]  In her essay “Death Imagery in Antony and Cleopatra,”  Katherine Vance MacMullan notes that several pervasive images of death found in earlier Shakespeare plays and reappearing  in Antony and Cleopatra are used for “purposes of characterization and for establishing  the important relationships of the play” (p.408). These “emblematic death images,” used for both Antony and Cleopatra,  include “images of death and love,  of  sleep and death [emphasis mine], and of light and darkness” (p.408).

[xxii]  In Plutarch’s description of Antony’s death scene, Cleopatra “dried up his blood that had berayed his face, and called him her Lord, her husband  [emphasis mine], and Emperour, forgetting her owne miserie and calamity, for the pitie and compassion she tooke of him”  (“Life of Marcus Antonius,”  Lives 6: 80).

[xxiii]  See the thoughtfully detailed analysis of Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra by Martha Tuck Rozett, who attempts to show the abundance of comic elements  in these two tragedies, one early and one late. As she puts it, “In particular, I wish to examine the comic structures implicit in the double suicides, which in both plays turn upon essentially comic acts of trickery”  (p.153). See also Lois Potter’s  relevant comments below, in the text,  on recent British performances of Antony and Cleopatra

[xxiv]  Jacqueline Van Houtte cogently reminds us that at various times in the play,  Antony has a variety  of motives for suicide (what she calls his “bewildering improvisation of motives “  )[p.5:  The cited page is not that of the original article, but of the Gale Biography in Context printout].  “In considering suicide,” she continues, “Antony cites, in chaotic succession, his rage at Cleopatra, his fear that Cleopatra and Caesar are colluding, his love for Cleopatra, his desire to em  ulate her  [after Mardian, Cleopatra’s eunuch, has falsely asserted that Cleopatra has already committed suicide], his desire to emulate Eros, and his refusal to become a trophy in Caesar’s triumph” [p.5]. Nonetheless, as  I believe, at the actual moment of his self-stabblng, his dominant motives are to follow  the example of his love, Cleopatra, whom he believes to be already dead, and to reclaim his lost honor. 

[xxv]  In a perceptive essay that focuses on Enobarbus’ death scene, David Read concentrates on the strangeness of Enobarbus’ death, noting, among other issues,  parallels and contrasts with other Shakespearean deaths  from a broken  heart (King Lear,  Gloucester, and Cleopatra’s Iras: pp.564-565, 575), and pointing out similarities between the “easy “ deaths of Enobarbus and Cleopatra, in contrast to Antony’s “hard” or “hard-edged,”  more conventional  Roman death  by sword  (e.g., pp.568 and 579).

[xxvi]  John Howard Wilson, in his article, “Sources for a Neglected Masterpiece,”  notes  that in 1965 Mishima directed and starred in a film called The Rite of Love and death, based on his short story  “Patriotism.” Mishima plays “the part of the army officer who commits seppuku” (p.278). Wilson’s article is primarily  about Paul Schrader, a “film theorist, screenwriter, and director”  (p.265) among whose  achievements  is a film about Mishima that Wilson felt had been unfairly neglected.  His article describing the film attempts to explicate the complex relationship between Mishima’s politics, his art, his life, and his long-standing death-wish. See also the lengthy New York Times review of the film by Japanese writer Michihiko Kakutani and the scholarly article by Hisaaki Yamanonchi.

[xxvii]  Quotations  from “Patriotism” are cited from the New Directions edition Death in Midsummer and Other Stories by Yukio Mishima.

[xxviii]  This ritual act of suicide among high-ranking members of the Japanese military is often referred to as “hara-kiri,” but it is generally known that the Japanese themselves more frequently call it “seppuku.” Both terms mean ‘cutting of the belly.’  Stephen Morillo points out that “more or less ritual forms of suicide appear in the earliest Japanese war tales from the twelfth century onwards” and that seppuku originated in wars between 1180-1185, “during which the warrior class of Japan rose to power” (p.242).

[xxix]  According to critic Tetsuo Kishi, the first Japanese to translate the whole Shakespeare canon into the Japanese  language (including, in each play, descriptive and analytic passages not in the original) was Shoyo Tsuboochi, “by far the most prominent figure in the history of Shakespeare in Japan” (pp.110-111).  (The first play that he translated was Julius Caesar  in 1884.) Given Mishima’s familiarity with Western literature and his fixation on suicide, it is more than likely that he was quite familiar with Shakespearean tragedy, either in Japanese translation or in English, including Antony and Cleopatra.

[xxx]  In his enlightening essay  Stephen Morillo hypothesizes that in seppuku “the choice of disembowelling is probably based on the ancient Japanese belief  that the soul resides in the belly” (p.255, note 46).


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Read, David. “Disappearing Act: The Role of Enobarbus  in Antony and Cleopatra.”  Studies in Philology  110.3   (Summer 2013): pp.562-583. Project Muse.  Web.  29 June 2015.

Rozett, Martha Tuck.  “The Comic Structures of Tragic Endings: The Suicide Scenes in Romeo and Juliet  and Antony         and Cleopatra.”  Shakespeare  Quarterly  36.2  (Summer, 1985): pp.152-164. JStor. Web.  20 June 2012.

Sacharoff, Mark. “Suicide and Brutus’ Philosophy  in Julius Caesar.”  Journal of the History of Ideas  33.1 (Jan.-  March, 1972):  pp.115-122. JStor. Web.  3 July 2006.

Sanderson, Richard K.  “Suicide as Message and Metadrama in English Renaissance Tragedy.”  Comparative Drama        26.3 (Fall 1992): pp.199-217.  JStor.   Web.  10 Feb. 2015.

Seneca, Lucius Annaeus.  Ad Lucilium. Epistulae Morales.  Ed. And Trans. Richard M. Gummere.  3 vols. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge,  Mass., and London: Harvard University Press and William Heinemann Ltd. :  Vol. 1: 1917, rpt. 1934; and Vol. 3: 1925, rev. and rpt. 1953; and London and New York: William          Heinemann Ltd. and G.P. Putnam’s Sons: Vol. 2: 1920, rpt. 1930. Print.

—.  Moral  Essays.  Ed. And Trans. John W. Basore. 3 vols. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, Mass., and London:            Harvard University Press  and William Heinemann Ltd. : Vol. 1: 1928, rpt. 1958; Vol. 2: 1932, rev. and rpt. 1935; Vol. 3: 1935, rpt. 1958.  Print.

Shakespeare, William.  Hamlet. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt.  The Norton Shakespeare.  pp.1696-1784. Print.

—.  Macbeth. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt.  The Norton Shakespeare . pp. 2579-2632. Print.

—.  The Most Excellent and Lamentable Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt.  The Norton Shakespeare . pp. 905-972. Print.           

—.  Othello. Ed. Walter Cohen.  The Norton Shakespeare . pp.2119-2191. Print.

— .  The Rape of Lucrece. Ed. Katharine Eisaman Maus.  The Norton Shakespeare.  pp. 669-710. Print.

—.  The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra. Ed. Walter Cohen.  The Norton Shakespeare.  pp.2643-2721. Print.

—.  The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. Ed. Katharine Eisaman Maus.  The Norton Shakespeare. pp.1557-1613. Print.

—.   The Tragedy of King Lear: A Conflated Text. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt.  The Norton Shakespeare. pp. 2493-2567.

Smith, Barbara.  “Neither Accident Nor Intent: Contextualizing the Suicide of Ophelia.”  South Atlantic Review  73.2           (Spring 2008): pp.96-112. JStor.  Web.  10 Feb. 2015.

St. Augustine.  Concerning the City of God Against the Pagans. Trans. Henry Bettenson.  Intro. David Knowles.                   Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1972.  Book I. Chapters 16-28.  pp.26-40. Print.

Tacitus, Publius Cornelius.  The Annals.  Books 13-16. Ed. and Trans. John Jackson. Vol. 4 of The Histories and the             Annals . Ed. Christopher H. Moore and John Jackson.  Loeb Classical Library.  Cambridge, Mass., and          London: Harvard University Press  and William Heinemann, Ltd., 1937, rpt. 1962. Book 15. Chapters 62-64.       pp.315-319. Print. 4 vols.

Taylor, Lily Ross. Party Politics in the Age of Caesar.   Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California Press, 1961. Print.

Van Houtte, Jacqueline.  “Antony’s ‘Secret House of Death’:  Suicide and Sovereignty in Antony and Cleopatra.”                 Philological Quarterly  79.2 (Spring 2000): n.p.  Gale Biography in Context.  Web. 3 May 2014.

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Yamanonchi, Hisaaki.  “Mishima Yukio and His Suicide.”   Modern Asian Studies  6.1 (1972): pp.1-16. JStor.  Web.           22 June 2014.


Blits, Jan H.  “Redeeming Lost Honor: Shakespeare’s  Rape of Lucrece.”   The Review of Politics  71 (2009): pp. 411-           427.  Print.

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Charney, Maurice.  “Style in Julius Caesar  and Antony and Cleopatra.”   ELH: A Journal of English Literary History                26.3 (September, 1959): pp.355-367. JStor. Web. 6 June 2012.

Duncan-Jones, Katherine.  “ ‘O Happy Dagger! : The Autonomy of Shakespeare’s Juliet.”   Notes and Queries  45               (September 1998): pp.314-316. Print.

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Helms, Lorraine. “ ‘The High Roman Fashion’ : Sacrifice, Suicide, and the Shakespearean Stage.”  PMLA 107.3 :                 Special Topic : Performance  (May, 1992): pp.554-565. JStor. Web.  20 June 2012.

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Watson, Curtis Brown. Shakespeare and the Renaissance Concept of Honor. Princeton: Princeton U Press, 1960.                Print.

The Semiotic Anti-Subject: Postmodernism’s Repudiation of Subjectivity

by Donald Kuspit

What is postmodernism? There are all too many definitions, all agreeing on only one thing: something has changed, socioartistically as well as aesthetically. In general, postmodernism involves a sense of deja vu–a cynical sense of having seen it all, epitomized by Roland Barthes’s notion of the “already read, seen, done, experienced,” which reduces it to the fragment of a discourse–a bit of text that is a link in a chain of language, itself a dictionary of themes, as he says in SfZ. Any artist, writer, thinker invariably stands in ambiguous relationship to the existing discourse. He is its plagiarist, but he can also stand in ironical–seemingly critical–relationship to what he appropriates from it, in the sense that his new text-but in postmodernism nothing is “new,” only “neo”–can be “a double-layered or two-storied phenomenon [involving] some kind of opposition between the two levels, an opposition that can take the form of contradiction, incongruity, or incompatibility,” to use D. C. Muecke’s description of irony. (1)

Muecke thinks there is an “element of ‘innocence'” in irony, but there is nothing innocent about postmodern irony. It cynically manipulates what is cynically the case to generate a sense of contradiction, incongruity, incompatibility, which creates an aura of novelty–cynical novelty–around what is otherwise foreknown. Such clever, constructed absurdity supposedly piques the reader’s interest or draws his attention, an exercise in curiosity that makes the whole enterprise worthwhile, or at least intellectually justifies it. In fact, it is a kind of intellectualization of the already intellectualized–the already known, historical, thematized, conceptualized, and thus categorically the case. The artist becomes a cunning manipulator of the linguistically given, and the viewer an educated reader, rather than a person who has a certain complex, sometimes unexpected, not always immediately intelligible experience of the art–let’s say romantic experience of it. In contrast to such a romantic person, who approaches art with no preconceptions but with a great sense of anticipation, however much he knows about its history and meaning, the trained reader knows what to expect in advance, and deftly teases the art apart, tracing its textual elements to their sources, restoring them to their thematic contexts–“classical” collective contexts. Such an analysis stays on the uncritical surface, for it does not analyze the significance of the collective thematic context, let alone bring it into question as a formulation and site of human significance and value. In Barthes’s words, embedded in Sherrie Levine’s 1982 “Statement,” art is “a tissue of quotations drawn from innumerable centers of culture….A multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash.”(2) Levine’s “Statement” is itself nothing but a tissue of quotations, mimicking “her strategy of appropriation,” as has been said, in that it “employs often­ quoted phrases from Roland Barthes,” indicating that it is the epitome of a postmodern work of art, all the more so because it is completely “conceptual.” The so-called critic­ analyst-interpreter’s job is to trace the quotations back to their sources, and celebrate the irony and intricate variety of their relationships. This is not unlike the old art historical tracing of influences, as though that exhausted the meaning and explained the value of an art, thus unwittingly–but Barthes is witting-debunking it. Reduced to a culturally given code of conventions, not to say clichés–its creative and imaginative difference neutralized and denied-it becomes indifferently the case, another look-alike bead on a cultural string.

Such a limited view of art as a set of masterful ironies, whose invention and decipherment both afford a certain intellectual excitement–not exactly elation-has its emotional value, especially for the artist. It defends against the feeling that art without its irony would be futile–hardly worth the trouble of making. It has to be unconsciously depressing for the artist to know that he is bound by what is already known and seemingly fated–predetermi ned–by language. And even with irony it is depressing to be reduced to acknowledging a discourse in which one is trapped. The postmodern artist is a kind of clever animal, able to juggle quotations-an ingenious but hardly innovative act. What used to be jungle cunning now consists in the artist turning somersaults in his linguistic cage, or biting his own linguistic tail–which is what irony is-because he can’t bite the keeper of his language, the mysterious keeper who taught him the language from which he can’t escape. This language was a collective fait accompli before he entered it, to his creative despair. He may bandage it over with irony, but his art still reeks of staleness and redundancy. Indeed, one might say that postmodernism makes the ironical best of staleness and redundancy . It is a sophisticated Alexandrianism, in which, to use Clement Greenberg’s words, “the same themes are mechanically varied in a hundred different works of art, and yet nothing new is produced: Statius, Mandarin verse, Roman, sculpture, Beaux-Arts painting, Nao-republican architecture,”(3) Greenberg thought that avant-garde art was an attempt “to go beyond Alexandrianism,”(4) but it seems clear that postmodern–post­ avant-garde–art involves the Alexandrianization of avant-garde art, especially its final conceptual phase and swansong. In fact, postmodernism involves the Alexandrianization of the whole history of art, which reduces to an infinitely extendible series of quotations that can be strung together for ironical effect. Indeed, putting one next to another automatically generates an ironical effect, that is, a sense of contradiction, incongruity, incompatibility, however much it suggests they meet, in some conceptual truce, or at least intellectual utopia, on the higher ground of a theme. In postmodernism, irony is as reified, overfamiliar, and predictable–as much a repeated quotation–as the art out of which it is constructed.

Alexandrianism always involves staying on and copying the linguistic surface of an art. More crucially, it assumes there is nothing behind the surface–art is all surface. with nothing that might be called “depth” behind it. In Alexandrianism, a known art is reduced to a linguistic facade, which is reified into a copy that is appropriated as a look, and as such stripped of its aesthetic and expressive implications. As Kandinsky might say, it becomes all socio-linguistic body with no human soul. Duchamp once said that a work of art eventually loses its aura or emanation, living on in the purgatory of art history. But the moment it is seen as an exercise in language it becomes a hollow ghost in an intellectual hades. For me the denial of depth is the key to postmodernism . It is a rebellious attack against and contemptuous dismissal of the modern belief in depth–the modern idea that surface is a symbol and symptom of depth, rather than to be taken at face value. Where the modern artist wants people to see the depth behind the surface, the postmodern artist thinks everything you need to know and that can be known is on the surface. Kandinsky states the modern position when he declares : ”I’d like people to understand at last what there is behind my painting…and not to be satisfied to notice that I use triangles and circles.”(5) Warhol takes a postmodern stance when he remarks: “If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the survace: of my paintings and films and me, and there I am.

There’s nothing behind it….I see everything that way, the surface of things, a kind of mental Braille, I just pass my hands over the surface of things.”(6) Not dipping below or able to dip below the surface. one might add, because the surface is solid unbreakable glass, reflecting the artist back to himself, a grandiose gesture of narcissistic mimesis that ironically turns him into another surface without depth–a linguistic copy of an unoriginal self. In contrast. the modern artist finds the “universals or near-universals” or “archetypes” of human nature, as the sociobiologist Edward Wilson calls them,(7) in the depths of the work of art.

The Oedipean tragedy, violating “the Westermarck eff ect, which inhibits incest and the natural aversion to snakes” are two among the many examples of ancient archetypes Wilson examines. We are usually unconscious of their import, however much emotion they arouse, but they “spawn legions of metaphors that compose not only a large part of the arts but also of ordinary conversation,” Wilson notes, so that we become indirectly conscious of their significance. The arts, then, are inseparable from what he calls “the human aesthetic.” “They are invariably focused toward certain forms and [dominant] themes”–“widely recurring abstractions and core narratives” that convey “the epigenetic rules, which are the inherited regularities of mental development that compose human nature”–“but they are otherwise freely constructed.”(8) One might say their surface is constructed in such a way as to convey a humanly meaningful depth without dropping us into it so that we lose the detachment necessary for finding our way in and around and back out of it. Art helps us make the interior journey, but it also helps us make the return journey to the exterior world, so that we are not victimized by what we experience on the inside. From this point of view, the work of art condenses or compresses the journey inward to the depths of human nature and the journey back again outward to its social surface in one dynamic form. Its elements must do double duty, as it were–exist simultaneously as convincing symbols of social surface and psychic depth–of the superficial and the fundamental. Thus the artist must be, as Baudelaire said the true artist is, a “homo duplex,” that is, an introvert attentive to his own psyche and an extrovert attentive to the society in which he happens to live.

Postmodernism rejects this doubleness. The artist is only an extrovert–a passive extrovert without active introversion to balance himself. When Warhol says “I want to be a machine” and “I think everybody should be a machine” and also “I like boring things. I like things to be exactly the same over and over again,”(9) he acknowledges this passivity, ultimately a failure of creativity. I think Warhol is the emblematic postmodern artist and the emblematic anti-subjective semiotic artist–the artist who deals exclusively in linguistic surfaces. Pop art has in fact been understood to be the first postmodern art, “a sort of break point in our culture,” as Jean-Louis Picard and Peter Watson point out. Watson writes: “Since it flourished, many people have become enthusiastic about contemporary art but at the same time are unable to see much merit or enjoyment in what preceded it.”(10) Where the “avant-garde forms of art that dominated painting and sculpture in the first six decades of this century” had “relatively limited appeal,” Pop art had broad appeal because “its images and techniques were familiar to everyone,” and it posed “no difficulties of abstraction, symbolism or art history to overcome.” Pop art doesn’t require depth interpretation to grasp, but rather sociological understanding and behaviorism. Pop art is “a sort of visual Esperanto…all the more striking for the fact that though it is relatively new, Esperanto is, to all intents and purposes, already dead.” In other words, it does not supply the sense of aliveness the romantic artist is so desperate for, and is necessary for emotional survival in a society that feels dead or dying on the inside. Indeed, Pop art confirms its living deadness. Watson suggests that Pop art, “in taking us back to the popular art of the nineteenth century, is perhaps reviving the wrong part of the nineteenth century, when artists earned enormous amounts of money in their lifetimes, but did not produce lasting work,” nor, one might add, creative work. Watson thinks Warhol is the Meissonier of our day.

What Warhol and postmodernism deny when they deny depth and its metaphoric rendering–creative transformation into a form that symbolizes and expresses and evokes it–is “the existence of a universal human nature,” as Wilson says. Singling out Derrida’s and Paul de Man’s “deconstructive philosophy” as “the extreme manifestation of postmodernism,” Wilson writes that from their point of view “each person creates his own inner world by acceptance or rejection of endlessly shifting linguistic signs. There is not privileged point, no lodestar…And given that science is just another way of looking at the world, there is no scientifically constructible map of human nature from which the deep meaning of texts can be drawn.”(11) Wilson responds: “The postmodernist hypothesis does not conform well to the evidence. It is blissfully free of existing information on how the mind works.”(12) Thus one of the consequences of its staying on the linguistic surface is that the inner world it conceives is blissfully free of deep mental conflict. It is a matter of internalized language. Signs are eccentrically combined into a pseudo-personal system of ironical structures that can be intellectually deconstructed. However meaningful, these are hardly the same as the inescapable organic mental conflicts–such as occur at each of the “eight ages of man,” as Erikson says(13)–that must be worked through and resolved, although they can re-appear at any age. One cannot simply accept or reject such conflicts, the way one can deliberately accept or reject linguistic signs–but on what basis? (certainly not an emotional one for the postmodernists)–but only suffer them involuntarily. They are the usually unconscious substance of depth, and postmodernism does not engage or believe in them. It lacks any sense of mental development, and, more crucially from the point of view here, it denies the dynamic unconscious. If the inner world is a derivative, extension, and construction of linguistic signs then it is more self-conscious than unconscious, and without its own dynamic.

The idea that “everything [in art] is done by docilely submitting to the arrival of the ‘unconscious’,” as Redon wrote. so that the semi-consciously constructed surface of art is “suggestive” of the unconscious depths of the “subjective world,” which has its “own logic,”(14) dies with postmodernism. So does the subjective world. The “emotions” that Baudelaire thought supplied “the particular element in each manifestation” of beauty(15) die with postmodernism. So does beauty. The idea that painting can be a “documentation of the unconscious,” as Kandinsky’s painting supposedly is,(16) or that the “source of art [is) the Unconscious,” as the Surrealists and Pollock thought,(17) is over and done with in postmodernism . In postmodernism art does not convey “nonobjective feeling…by objective imagery,”(18) as it did in traditional art, nor does it convey nonobjective feeling by nonobjective forms. It is entirely a matter of objective imagery, indeed, overly objective imagery. Non-objective forms are socially objectified into standarized images, along with the subjective imagery that constitutes the bulk of modern art. Expressionism becomes Neo­ Expressionism, Surrealism becomes Neo-Surrealism. Objectified into one more “typical” art, Expressionism and Surrealism lose the aura of incomprehensibility or mystery that gave them unconscious resonance–the sense that their absurd imagery conveyed deep emotions that could only be experienced rather than understood–that made them provocative and intriguing.

Mondrian said that “it is the artist’s task to make forms and colors living and capable of arousing emotion,” so that “if he makes art into an ‘algebraic equation,’ there is no argument against the art, it only proves that he is not an artist.”(19) But Sherrie Levine says that “succeeding the painter, the plagiarist no longer bears within him passions, humours, feelings,”(20) suggesting that all the conceptual plagiarist does is make algebraic equations, crude examples of which are Joseph Kosuth’s early works. It used to be an intellectual and moral crime to be a plagiarist–to copy tradition rather than build on it, as Winnicott said, and certainly to copy the dictionary–but now it has acquired what Breton once called the dignity and status of art, assuming that art still has dignity and status and has not become, as the historian Robert Constant said it has, ridiculous. If, as the historian Eric Hobsbawm writes, “all ‘postmodernisms’ had in common an essential skepticism about the existence of objective reality, and/or the possibility of arriving at an agreed understanding of it by rational means,” and thus “tended to a radical relativism”(21)–one only has to think of Barthes’s remark that “the realistic artist never places ‘reality’ at the origin of his discourse, but…only a succession of copies”(22) to get the point–then art also seems relative to whatever one irrationally wants it to be. As Hobsbawm says, “the modernist avant-gardes had already extended the limits of what could claim to be ‘art’ (or, at any rate, yield products that could be sold or leased or otherwise profitably separated from their creators as ‘art’) almost to infinity. What ‘postmodernism’ produced was rather a (largely generational) gap between those who were repelled by what they saw as the nihilistic frivolity of the new mode and those who thought taking the arts ‘seriously’ was just one more relic of the obsolete past.”(23) Clearly the romance of art is over in postmodernism. This hardly means that postmodern art is a new classicism, if classicism means, as Edward Wilson says it does, the achievement of equilibrium(24) –the same dynamic equilibrium, overcoming the disequilibrium that “means conflict, disorder,” that Mondrian said was the goal of art.(25) As I hope to show, in postmodernism the problem is boredom, as Warhol’s taste for boredom indicates, not disequilibrium.

I want to drive home the difference between modernism and postmodernism with a few more quotations. They are my way of more fully developing what Iwant to call the semiotic psychosis that pervades postmodernism. In such a psychosis there is the denial of any link between the linguistic sign and subjective reality. More particularly, in semiotic psychosis the linguistic sign is removed from and elevated above the context it makes emotional sense in, and from which, in a sense, it emerges, and to which, in a sense, it continues to refer long after it has become part of common sense. This radical decontextualization in effect isolates the linguistic sign as a transcendent absolute, a kind of Ding an sich standing above all the human contexts in which it might appear. Semiotic psychosis is clearly an example of omnipotence of thought. Without its emotional context, the sign loses its fundamental human meaning–broadly speaking, its function as an expression of human nature. The radical surgery of decontextualization–it is a kind of Solomonic dumbness, for Solomon was wise enough not to cut the baby in half, separating it once and for all from its real, caring mother–is the method of postmodern madness. Barthes is the grand wizard of such madness. I hope to show the folly of his separation of the linguistic sign from its expressive function–its reference to human feeling–thus diminishing its meaning.

Postmodern art does what Barthes does, wittingly or unwittingly, for it is a construction of inexpressive or sham and simulated expressive or de-expressified–once vitally expressive but now expressively redundant and overobjectified to the extent of becoming hackneyed–linguistic signs, in whatever standard form. The supposedly objective–certainly objectifying–language of theory has had to come to the rescue of art because of its emotional failings, that is, its impoverished postmodern language.

Art has had to think of itself as theory in disguise, which is the way Kosuth thinks of it, because it has lost its expressive creativity.

In his essay on Proust Samuel Beckett writes: “The pendulum oscillates between these two terms: Suffering–that opens a window on the real and is the main condition of the artistic experience, and Boredom–with its host of top-hatted and hygienic ministers, Boredom that must be considered as the most tolerable because the most durable of human evils.”(26) Warhol’s art, and postmodern art in general, is an allegory of Boredom, while Kandinsky’s art, and modern art in general, is an allegory of Suffering. If, as Beckett writes, “the suffering of being” involves “the free play of every faculty,” (27) then suffering is more creative than boredom. Indeed, since the faculties are inhibited and deadened in and by boredom–a form of depression, as Andre Haynal argues–it renders creativity and freedom meaningless. Beckett states : “The periods of transition that separate consecutive adaptations…represent the perilous zones in the life of the individual, dangerous, precarious, painful, mysterious and fertile, when for a moment the boredom of living is replaced by the suffering of being.”(28) Modern art is such a period of creative transition and perilous freedom-­ suggesting that it was short-lived, however much we may speak of a “tradition of the new”–and postmodern art represents a return to boredom, the boredom without which we could not adapt to living and that is itself the major mode of adaptation to much of life. If there is any explanation for the rise of Pop art–simultaneous with Minimalism, with which it shares certain boredom-inducing and symbolizing features, such as repetitive quotation and self-quotation, more particularly, straitjacketing, untransformative seriality-it is because we can tolerate just so much suffering and freedom, and finally have to capitulate to boredom, which is the most tolerable, because most passive, suffering. Anyway it is socially safer to be bored than creative. Warhol’s Pop art is a well-adapted , fundamentally boring and bored uncreative art.

The advocate of linguistic boredom in art–one of itse top-hatted, hygienic ministers–is Rosalind Krauss. Her “polemical… tone” and “combative posture,” as she calls them, belie her magisterial advocacy of linguistic boredom, signalled by her dogmatic use of structuralism (Saussure) and poststructualism (Barthes) to jettison the concept of artistic “originality,” along with a cluster of related concepts. namely, creativity, authenticity, and expression as well as biography, personality, and the unconscious, and, one might add, suffering. In a sense. to impersonally theorize about art. as a basic response to it as she does, rather than to spontaneously and personally feel it, making it a part of one’s emotional life, that is, introjecting it-no doubt after being “programmed” enough to appreciate or attune to it, as Clement Greenberg says –is to show that one is bored with it, that is, ready to adapt it to the boring world, which means to banalize it i nto another piece of boring collective language . Theory is hardly an adequate human response to the unconscious suffering the most creative art paradoxically conveys through its self-conscious use of language.

Krauss’s position is most explicit in her book The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (1985), although she seems to have made a half-turn toward biography , personality, and the unconscious in The Optical Unconscious (1993). But it has nothing in common with the dynamic unconscious, and her treatment of Clement Greenberg’s personality from her aggrandizing narcissistic perspective–her pretense of having suffered at his hands–hardly counts as psychobiography. It is more an attempt to discredit his creativity and authenticity, whatever their problems, than to do him human justice.

Krauss writes, in a summary statement of the postmodern position:

One of the methodological corrollaries of this [structuralist] conception of meaning is that it is a function of the system at a given moment in time–the system synchronically displayed–rather than the outcome of a specific development or history. Rejecting the diachronic, or historical, study of language(s) as a way to arrive at a theory of signification, Saussure’s work set a precedent for the attack on the temporal model that structuralist and poststructuralist theories have staged on a variety of fronts. Some of these can be heard in Barthes’s way of accounting for the significance of the Argo-model, as he dismisses from its field of relevance a concept like “origin,” with its importance to traditional historical thinking, or concepts like “genius,” “inspiration,” “determination” and “evolution,” by which works of art are embedded within the conditions of their creation. For the nonstructuralist critic, whole realms of inquiry-aesthetic intuition, biographical context, psychological models of creativity, or the possible existence of private worlds of allusion–are raised [razed?] by these concepts, which not only imply the temporal condition of the work’s generation, but call for an interpretive model based on the analogy between the work and its maker: the work’s surface thought of as existing in relation to its g in relation to its “depth” much the way the exterior of the human subject is understood to relate to his internal, or true, self. By contrast. the structuralist model of substitutions and nomination does not call to mind the image of depth–substitution being able, after all, to take place by moving pieces about on a plane surface. Thus if Barthes cherishes the Argo-model, it is for its shallowness.(29)

It is not clear that shallowness invalidates depth; synchronicity, after all, does not deny diachronicity. They are complementary; one of the major tasks of philosophical thinking is to work out the dialectic of their relationship. Krauss wants to “substitute for the idea of the work of art as an organism (developing out of a past tradition, embedded in the history of a given medium) the image of it as a structure.”(30) Quoting Barthes, she explains the Argo model to illustrate the notion of structure:

The Argonauts were ordered by the Gods to complete their long journey in one and the same ship–the Argo–against the certainty of the boat’s gradual deterioration. Over the course of the voyage the Argonauts slowly replaced each piece of the ship, “so that they ended with an entirely new ship, without having to alter either its name or its form. This ship Argo is highly useful,” Barthes continues. “It affords the allegory of an eminently structural object, created not by genius, inspiration, determination, evolution, but by two modest actions (which cannot be caught up in any mystique of creation): substitution (one part replaces another, as in a paradigm) and nomination (the name is in no way linked to the stability of the parts): by dint of combinations made within one and the same name, nothing is left of the origin: Argo is an object with no other cause than its name, with no other identity than its form.”(31)

This is certainly one way of making the mountain of the Argonauts’ mission–to get the Golden Fleece, of which there is no mention in Barthes–into a technical molehill. Amazingly, it ignores the complex human situation, full of intrigue and peril, surrounding the voyage of the Argo. It is as though the voyage is not part of a larger –a relatively isolated moment in a complicated, all too human development.

Barthes strips the story of its emotional momentum and, more broadly, of its subjective import. He also ignores the heroic invention of the Argo itself, which was technically advanced for its day. Krauss, following Barthes, has “decontextualized”. the Argo ; let us “recontextualize” it via Bulfinch’s treatise on mythology:

The king Aeson…surrendered his crown to his brother Pelias….When Jason was grown up and came to demand the crown…Pelias…suggested to the young man the glorious adventure of going in quest of the Golden Fleece…in the kingdom of Colchis….At the time the only species of navigation known to the Greeks consisted of small boats or canoes hollowed out from trunks of trees, so that when Jason employed Argus to build him a vessel capable of containing fifty men, it was considered a gigantic undertaking. It was accomplished, however, and the vessel named “Argo,” from the name of the builder.(32)

Among the fifty young men were Hercules, Theseus , Orpheus , and Nestor, as well as other “renowned among the heroes and demigods of Greece.” Let us also recall that the Colchian king, Aetes , “consented to give up the Golden Fleece if Jason would yoke to the plow two fire-breathing bulls with brazen feet, and sow the teeth of the dragon which Cadmus had slain, and from which…a crop of armed men would spring up.” Aetes promised his daughter Medea, “a potent sorceress,” who furnished him with “a charm, by which he could encounter safely the breath of the fire-breathing bulls and the weapons of the armed men.”(33) Jason succeeded at his task, married Medea–we won’t go into the well-known aftermath–and delivered the Golden Fleece to Pelias. The story involves the conflict between generations, and the replacement of the power and authority of the older generation by that of the younger generation, which proved itself by performing a task the older generation thought was impossible to accomplish. This showed that the younger generation was heroic and dynamic, and thus entitled to power and authority, compared to the homebound, complacent older generation, which lacked an adventurous, innovative spirit.

Clearly Barthes’s understanding of the Argo has sold its human significance rather short, indicating that the structural model of art sells it short. He has focused on . one micromoment of the narrative at the expense of the rest. One might say he turns the genius of the entire event into theingenious solution of the Argonauts to the problem of the gods’ command and the boat’s deterioration. In effect, he has turned its depth into shallowness. He has ignored the reason for the Argo’s voyage and turned it into an object, which is to treat it in a peculiarly irrational–somewhat one-sided or one­ dimensional–way. Now, obviously, one is aware of shallowness before one is aware of depth–one sees the boat sailing on the sea before one knows its story–but that hardly means that depth does not exist. Karl Kraus once wrote: “Adolf Loos and I-he literally, I in the sphere of language-have done nothing more than show that there is a difference between an urn and a chamberpot, and that it is only by maintaining this difference that there is scope for culture. But the others, the “positive” ones, are divided into those who use the urn as a chamberpot and those who use the chamberpot as an urn.”(34) Barthes has turned an “urn”–the heroically crafted boat, ensconced in a complex, human narrative–into a “chamberpot”–the boat isolated as a certain structured form, and stripped of its creative origin and human purpose. Krauss, following Barthes, does the same to the work of art. She reduces it to a boring game of substitution and nomination rather than testimony to and the relic of an exciting emotional and broadly human adventure. The conflict between Pelias and Jason, which led to Argus’s creative invention, is altogether precluded as a factor behind-­ motivating–the creation of art. It seems obvious that the boat has historical inspiration, determination, and evolution that encompass its structure. To understand these is to understand its structure more fully. To understand the historical inspiration, determination, and evolution of a work of art is to understand its structure more fully.

Krauss writes: “If Barthes has a purpose, it is to isolate [linguistic] codes by applying a kind of spotlight to each instance of them, to expose them ‘as so many fragments of something that has always been already read, seen, done, experienced.’ It is also to make them heard as voices ‘whose origin,’ he says, ‘is lost in the vast perspective of the already-written’ and whose interweaving acts to ‘de-originate the utterance’.”(35) However, to “de-originate the utterance” does not eliminate the complex human reasons for rewriting, refashioning, and recontextualizing voices from the past. Janet Malcolm notes that Krauss “holds up Levine’s purloined photographs as a kind of master trope of postmodernism.”(36) But it seems clear that there must be an all too human reason–envy, perhaps, in the Kleinian sense–why Levine stole them .


In summary, I suggest the following about the postmodern linguistic approach to (1) It denies that art has anything to do with the True Self, in Winnicott’s sense, that is, with “the spontaneous gesture and the personal idea” rooted in the experience of living and lived body.(37) It is blind to the emotional fact that art is caught up in the dialectical conflict between the True Self, determined to creatively–heroically–assert itself–“creative apperception more than anything else makes the individual fee life is worth living,” Winnicott writes,(38) and the True Self embodies the “experience of aliveness”–and the well-adapted, play-it-socially-safe, uncreative, linguistically compliant, boring False Self. The latter secretly feels that life is not worth living, that is, it suffers from a “sense of futility,” perhaps because it has mastered “the polite and mannered social attitude” so well that it no longer knows what “wearing the heart on the sleeve,” which it has renounced, means. Creative selfhood defies compliant selfhood, which betrays the very idea of the self, however ironically necessary compliant selfhood is for social survival and success, as Winnicott says, even though such success leads to the loss of the feeling of being real as well as creative-­ creatively real–which one only experiences when one is true to oneself . If anything, postmodern art is a consummate manifestation of the False Self. Warhol’s portraits, and especially self-portraits, show the False Self in all its boring, disembodied splendor and mediagenic success. One only has to compare Warhol’s self-portraits with those of Max Beckmann to get the point. Salle’s paintings turn creative True Self art into compliant, socially successful False Self art by treating it as though it was mimicking itself. In both cases, as in all postmodern art, the authentic is turned into the inauthentic by being treated as no more than a linguistic sign of something that does not exist–the authentic self, authentic art–except as a sociolinguistic mirage. It is because of the absence of any belief in let alone idea of the authentic that postmodern art is boring and depressing.

(2) What Barthes calls substitution and nomination I want to call aesthetic management, a term used by Bernd Schmitt and Alex Simonson, two professors of marketing, in their book Marketing Aesthetics: The Strategic Management of Brands. Identity. and lmage.(39) Aesthetic management is not artistic creation, and can be said to supersede its in postmodernism. Postmodern art is a managed aesthetic construction rather than an imaginative artistic creation. More broadly, postmodern art has nothing to do with expressive creativity and everything to do with the management of linguistic signs. As Schmitt and Simons,.say, the point is to construct “an appearance center” out of them. Such a center has “irresistible appeal” and conveys “an attractive and lasting identity.” But the important point is that such a construction is not a haphazard, hit-or-miss matter, but rather a carefully managed marketing strategy in which the formal alphabet of “color, shape, line, and pattern” and the content alphabet of human interest themes are synthesized to scientifically predictable effect. Both alphbets are prefabricated linguistic signs, and their use in an appearance center is socially prescribed. One only has to think of Warhol’s paint by numbers pictures to get the procrustean point. John Baldessari’s constructions also use prefabricated images to confirm an already managed reality–the overwhelming reality of the administered society, as Adorno calls it. Beckett’s creative suffering was the individual ‘s escape from it, but there is no suffering or creativity–no escape–in Warhol and Baldessari’s anti-individualistic constructions, only the aesthetic management and institutionalization of already institutionalized and managed boredom. The final result of such cynical aesthetic management is the art-artist idol. “The idol,” Erich Fromm writes, “represents [man’s] own life forces in an alienated form.n(40) His humanity and life force never come back to him, however much he submits to the inhuman and lifeless idol, for it has consumed them for its own social glory. The postmodern idol mirrors the collective to perfection, and without irony.

In postmodernism the work of art becomes an appearance center with at best a marginal relationship to subjective reality, in the sense that it is a stimulus designed to evoke a consumer response. It also becomes an idol confirming the pervasiveness of self-alienation in a marketing society, as Fromm calls it. The work of art is no longer an imaginative re-creation of an archetypal theme, making us conscious of its formative influence on our individual lives and of its general implications for human nature, but rather a linguistic construction whose form and content are socially typical rather than archetypal, however much the socially typical surface is a diluted version of archetypal depth–so diluted that it is emotionally and cognitively shallow, and thus evocatively impotent. Its effect is transient and momentary, and one sees through it the instant one has experienced it, if recognition of its conventions and structure can be called a significant experience. One cannot durably identify with it–it does not seem to give one a piece of oneself one had not known one had–but rather expels it with the first taste. Or else one instantly metabolizes it, which means that it passes through one’s psyche without having any noticeable effect on one’s being. However, a steady diet of postmodern art is deadening, for it is lacks emotional and cognitive calories. To subsist on it is to become as boring and depressed–de-energi zed–as it is.

(3)For the postmodern artist, art is a mode of discourse rather than an expression of existence. Being the former seems to preclude being the tatter. That is, to organize an aspect of a general discourse is not necessarily to refer to anything existentially and experientially real–anything romantically deep. Thus art-making is not a creative transformation and insightful symbolization of reality–there is no such thing as what Jacques Maritan called creative intuition or what Winnicott calls “creating into”–and the work of art is not what Christopher Bolllas calls a transformational object, that is, an object that facilitates and supports emotional and cognitive growth, thus fundamentally transforming and strengthening the self. Perhaps the rock bottom model of postmodern art is Duchamp’s ironical transformation of everyday objects into art objects. It cannot be called creative because it involves no insight into the everyday and because it is “selfless.” And it regards objects simply as linguistic signs to be manipulated in a linguistic construction.

Ever since, everyday life has come to be understood as an ironical form of art, and art as an ironical form of everyday life. Certainly this is the postmodern point of Allan Kaprow’s notions of the “non-artist” and “the blurring of art and life,” to the refer to the title of his collected essays.(41) It certainly makes both art and life look easy, which is no doubt why the postmodern attitude is likely to be around for a while. Nonetheless, we are beginning to see a revival of romantic creativity in the form of a search or perhaps just wish for beauty in art. It is an idea that still seems to have some adventure in it, for beauty is a transformation of suffering, and there is no life without suffering. Beauty is a peculiarly subjective transformation or, to use Kandinsky’s and Freud’s word, sublimation of the inner world of feeling–this holds whether one conceives it as “disinterested satisfaction,” as Kant did, or as derived “from the field of sexual feeling,” as Freud did, indeed, perhaps the “perfect example of an impulse [the sexual impulse] inhibited by its aim”–that William Gass reminds us is the only worthwhile goal of art. Its absence in art, and the artist’s failure to realize it or indifference to it, are masked by his concern with the ideological issues of everyday life or, if one wants, the objective conditions of society. These no doubt make one sick, but the illness that results from trying to remedy them will not make one creative. It will certainly not help one emotionally survive in an ever more ingeniously alien if superficially comfortable society, which is what modern art did.

In a world of scientific and technological triumphs, I don’t see any other purpose for art than to symbolize subjective states, which still have their mysteries. They can perhaps be understood and mastered, in however personal and limited a way, through art. From this point of view, postmodern art has profound subjective meaning, for it embodies our profound alienation from our personal creativity–we have given creativity away to science and technology–for all the social yea-saying of it. This is alienation at its most extreme. It is perhaps good to know that we are not yet nauseated by our own alienation, but can enjoy its and the failure of subjective nerve it signifies in the form of postmodern art.


(1) Quoted in Frank Stringfellow, Jr., The Meaning of Irony: A Psychoanalytic Investigation (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), p. 3

(2) Quoted in Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, eds., Art in Theory 1900-1990 (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1992), p. 1066

Nonobjectivity As A Crisis Of Subjectivity

by Donald Kuspit

“The theory of moving electricity, which is supposed completely to replace matter, has found lately many keen proponents,” Kandinsky wrote in 1912, as though that meant that the moving electricity of his own innovative abstract art, which was supposed completely to replace the matter of representational art, would soon find advocates.(1) Kandinsky attempted to justify the change from representational to abstract art–from an art that engaged visible physical reality to one that evoked invisible spiritual reality–by comparing it to the change in the scientific conception of matter, but h e knew that the parallel between the artistic and scientific revolutions could only be carried so far. “I n this era of the deification of matter, only the physical, that which can be seen by the physical ‘eye,’ is given recognition. The soul has been abolished as a matter of course.”(2) Science sees with the physical eye, and deifies matter, however dynamic it conceives it to be, while abstract art restores the soul science abolished showing its dynamics. Modern science and modern art are opposed, however much they have a certain uncanny resemblance.

While Kandinsky asserts that “the concept ‘external’ should not…be confused with the concept ‘material’,” his attempt “to rid” art of “‘external necessity, which can never lead…beyond the bounds of accepted and hence mere traditional ‘beauty’,” and ground it on ‘”internal necessity’…which recognizes no such boundaries,”(3) is also an attempt to rid it of dependence on the external reality that traditional art beautified or idealized, and turn art’s attention to internal reality. As he said, in “objective” art “elements of nature have been employed,” while in “nonobjective” art “the content of the work is realized exclusively by purely pictorial means.”(4) That content has to do with what he called “inner effects.”(5) Thus, even if a work is pure rather than natural in its means, it can still be shaped by external necessity, and thus feel dead. “When the formal element of art is assessed exclusively by cold, external criteria”–he is thinking of Cubism, and especially Constructivism–“works of abstract art appear dead (so too in ‘life’). But when these external criteria are augmented by inner criteria, which we may take as our principal basis for judging the formal element, in the broadest sense, those same works of abstract art respond to the effect of warmth and come to life.”(6) The issue of abstract art is to bring art and with it the soul, to life–to feel alive, with the help of pure art, in a world that is known to be dead because it is physical material and. worst of all. determined entirely by external necessity.

Thus the crisis in mimesis that led to the emergence of nonobjective or pure art was a crisis of feeling as well as of reality. It had as much to do with the artist’s interior world as the exterior world he shared with others. I will outline the nature of this crisis, and then discuss four case histories–those of Kandinsky, Mondrian, Rothko, and Motherwell–which demonstrate how pure art came to the artist’s emotional rescue, indeed, saved his soul from a fate worse than death, namely, the feeling of living death. As Kandinsky wrote, what is needed is art that is “something other than a purely practical, utilitarian concern on the one hand. or an airy-fairy kind of l’art pour l’art on the other,” but rather that establishes “relationships with other spiritual realms and, ultimately, with the totality of ‘life’….Art will then b e…clearly seen as a life-giving force.”(7) For Kandinsky, art is either a force for “the positive, the creative ….the good. The white, fructifying ray” or “the negative, the destructive….the bad. The black, death­ dealing hand.”(8) In other words, art is a psychomachia, with mimesis as bad, because it is materialistic, and pure art as good, because it involves “sublimation,” as Kandinsky called it, which means that it abstracts “the creative spirit” that “lies concealed…behind matter, within matter,”(9) and that is the core of life and the source of the feeling of being alive .

I cannot help thinking of Winnicott’s observation that “there exists a relationship between the deepest conflicts that reveal themselves in religion and in art forms and the depressed mood or melancholic illness. At the centre is doubt, doubt as to the outcome of the struggle between the forces of good and evil, or in psychiatric terms, between the benign and persecutory elements within and without the personality .”(10) Winnicott also writes : “the opposite to the liveliness of the infant is an anti -life factor derived from the mother’s depression.”(11) One can say that the anti-life factor Kandinsky was fighting against with his purely vital art was his depressing experience of the world, who is the mother of us all. Winnicott notes: To be alive is all. It is a constant struggle to get to the starting point and keep there. No wonder there are those who make a special business of existing and who turn it into a religion.”(12)

One might say that is what Kan dinsky did by way of his pure art, which became a religion. He got to the starting point, and stayed there. Abstract art was, after all, his infant, and in fact it has the liveliness, and, one might add, integrity and honesty of an infant–all the more remarkable when compared with the forced, faked, pseudo-vitality of such decadent abstract paintings as those by Gerhard Richter, to take a prominent example of the contemporary crop of artificial abstractions, with their simulated vitality and dead purity, which pass for adult sophistication–fending off the anti-life forces inherent in its coldly secular environment.

Thus the loss of faith in mimesis involved the romantic artist’s increasingly problematic sense of self in a world that aroused more anxiety than its representation could manage. In mimesis, romantically understood, the artist invests himself in an alien world so that he can feel safe and secure in it. He empathically burrows into it to make it his own. This is what Constable was doing when he stated that “My limited and abstracted art is to be found under every hedge and in every lane.”(13) In the nineteenth century even a scientist such as Sir Humphry Davy could comfortably project and find himself in nature. Describing the landscape in which he first experienced “a distinct sympathy with nature,” as he called it, he wrote : “everything was alive and myself part of the series of visible impressions : I should have felt pain in tearing a leaf from one of the trees.”(14) This was close to Wordsworth, whose heart leaped u p when he beheld a rainbow in the sky, that is, who came alive when he experienced the colors of the rainbow, all the more lively and fluid because they soared into the sky. Clearly, nature, a nonhuman environment , was not alien to human nature for Constable, Davy, and Wordsworth. They felt secure and safe in and with it, and as alive as it obviously was. It was the vital alternative to the everyday world–to society busy getting and spending, as Wordsworth said–and as such seemed as close to eternity as it was possible to be on earth. Imitating nature, they experienced the divine.

But in the twentieth century it became impossible for the romantic artist to feel safe, secure, and alive in nature. It was no longer a haven from society. It became more and more difficult to establish a convincing therapeutic relationship with it.

Eternity became very remote indeed. The less natural and organic society itself came to seem–the more deliberately constructed it looked, which is the unnatural and inorganic, indeed, modern way it began to look under the pressure of industrialization (it i s clearly reflected in Cubism and Constructivism, in the turn from stone to steel in architecture, in the unnatural and inorganic appearance human beings began to have in painting and sculpture, all signs of modernization)–the less room it seemed to allow for the natural and organic, except in a token way. Such token traces and ratty symbols of nature were hardly adequate to the romance of life that Constable. Davy. and Wordsworth had sought and found in nature. It was no longer responsive to human nature–no longer mirrored the organic vitality of human beings. Thus there was no aliveness left in the world to support the romantic artist’s feeling of being alive, which made it inhospitable as a whole. Both nature and society had become too alien

to merge and identify with. The romantically inclined artist could not feel himself to be a basic part of anything in the world nor experience anything in the world as a basic part of himself. The materialistic society of the twentieth century–a society in which, as Kandinsky wrote , “men place exclusive value upon outward success, concern themselves only with material goods, and hail technical progress, which serves and can only serve the body, as a great achievement”(15)–was too untrustworthy to entrust with his sense of self, too emotionally unsafe to be a safe harbor, too exploitive to be in even subliminal sympathy with his existence. In this situation of complete alienation-­irreversible separation–from nature and society, which all but destroyed a self that already felt precarious, the romantic artist fell back on his art. It was the only remedy he could think of–the only remedy that seemed possible–the only emotional space in which he felt sate, secure, and alive. Making art, he felt strong and intact–a self cured of its alienation, however much his complete absorption in his art confirmed his alienation. Art became the exclusive space in which he could lose himself completely and lovingly as he once lost himself completely and lovingly in nature. Nature completed him by giving him consciousness of his deepest nature, and he completed it by giving it consciousness of itself, and now he had the same dialectical intimacy with art. Pure art was a homemade, last ditch remedy, desperate self-medication, in a situation in which nature could no longer heal the wounds inflicted by society, and society its elf seemed beyond remedy and hope.

In short, losing reciprocity with nature—signalled by the fact that it no longer seemed worth the trouble of representing, or even fit to represent–the romantic artist established a new reciprocity with art, resulting in its purification. Society and finally nature became a dispensable alien dross–both were treated with the same destructive indifference with which the romantic artist felt they treated him, in part by being reduced to a realm of raw beta sensations , which destroyed them as alembics or

containers in which sublimation or spiritualization could occur–and art became a sanctuary in which the self could commune with and purify itself. The turn to pure art was in fact a romantic attempt to clean the temple of art so that it could be a place in which the artist could worship creativity as such, if also his self at its most creative-­ most romantic. In short, the religion of art replaced the religion of nature. To understand what occurred, all one has to do is replace the word “Nature” with “Art” in Constable’s recognition of “the beauty and majesty of Nature,” which led him “to adore the hand that has, with such lavish beneficence, scattered the principles of happiness and enjoyment throughout every department of Creation.”(16) It was now the artist’s hand that did the scattering, and did it in the work of art, which became emblematic of Creation itself .

The pure artist–the unequivocally non-objective, uncompromisingly abstract artist–replaced the romance and religion of nature with the romance and religion of art. One can say that the latter grew out of the former in Kandinsky and Mondrian, but art came to replace nature so completely that the latter seemed beside the creative point. “Many people cannot see the spirit in religion, in art,” Kandinsky wrote ,(17) but they would see the spirit in his religious art, the purest of all religious arts. Similarly, in an essay titled “A New Religion?,” written between 1938 and 1940, during his exile in London, Mondrian, after stating that “the new Nazi and Soviet religion is oppressive, just like the old traditional religion,” declared that “the new art is the old art free of all oppression….In this way art becomes religion. The new religion is faith in life. The new religion is for those capable of abstraction.”(18)

There were still efforts to treat the modern social world as a natural landscape, vitalizing it so that it seemed organic and timeless–Monet ‘s and Derain’s London pictures are conspicuous examples–but it was no longer convincingly one to Kandinsky and Mondrian, nor was nature spiritually convincing or sublime. Both began by projecting themselves into nature, in a standard romantic way, and ended up making pure art, the ultimate romantic art, because it evoked a sense of integral and dynamic–creatively alive–selfhood they felt nowhere else. They began as romantic landscape artists and became mystics of the self . If, as Harry Stack Sullivan wrote, “the self-system …is an organization of educative experience called into being by the necessity to avoid or to minimize incidents of anxiety,”(19) then mystically pure art was called into being by the necessity to avoid or to minimize the profound anxiety the modern world caused the romantic artist. Kandinsky and Mondrian educated themselves in pure art–it was indeed a self-education–to avoid and control their annihilative anxiety, that is, their sense of the groundlessness of their existence and art in the modern world. They turned away from it–refused to represent it–not simply to defensively negate or deny in, but to sustain their innermost sense of self–a creative self so basic and inward that it seemed abstract, unworldly. They made the romantic turn inward–reached the “spiritual turning-point,” as Kandinsky called it(20)–not only to save the creative self from the indifferent world, but to give it the strength of purpose to survive and flourish without the world.

Pure art was originally the romantic symbol of autonomy in an unromantic world in which none seemed possible–a world which could not be a facilitating environment for the individual because it conceived him in collective terms. Individualism is a collective ideology in the modern world of instrumental reason, which is concerned with the individual only in his social role and identity. One of the reasons Kandinsky and Mondrian turned to Theosophy for support, however idiosyncratic and esoteric a religion it may b e–the more idiosyncratic and esoteric the better, for that meant it was more oriented to the individual than the collective, more concerned to initiate the individual into his own creativity than to enforce a dogma designed to direct and even limit or humble human creativity (for it would be competitive with God’s creativity)- -is because only religion seemed to acknowledge and support the individual’s existence and creativity in a world indifferent to them. If religion at its deepest involves renunciation and withdrawal from the world to liberate the self’s creativity–for the mystic the world is never an adequate ground of selfhood since it never liberates the self’s creativity without using it for its own practical purposes, so that creativity never becomes truly free-spirited–then Kandinsky and Mondrian turned to religion for the sake of their creativity, that is, the godhead within themselves . For them religion was the positive alternative to the “absolute negativity” that Adorno said is now “in plain sight”–in Auschwitz–“and has ceased to surprise anyone.”(21) Negativity was also in plain sight for Kandinsky and Mondrian, but it did not yet seem absolute–Auschwitz had not yet happened—which is why they consoled themselves and counterattacked with religion and creativity at their most revolutionary–with the new religion of art.

If “the indifference of each individual life…is the direction of history,” as Adorno wrote,(22) then for Kandinsky and Mondrian pure art goes against the direction of history, for it symbolizes the creative difference of each individual life. Indifference means the individual makes no difference, only the collective does, but the art of Kandinsky and Mondrian suggests that the individual does make a difference. Theirs is an art of subtle individual difference, rather than of socially defined and prescribed differences–invariably gross differences. As Kandinsky emphasized, the creative issue is “the creation of individual forms,” which are the building blocks of “the whole composition,” and assure its individuality.(23) There is no doubt what Bion calls “fear of social-ism” in their apparently narcissistic, even psychotic turn to the religion of pure art, but it was the only way they had of defending themselves against the collective, “which is known to be indifferent to [one’s] fate as an individual.”(24)

The art of Kandinsky and Mondrian is religious not because they thought religion would “reconstitute the pervasive human sociability that capitalism had destroyed,” which is what Meyer Schapiro thought Van Gogh’s idea of a quasi­ religious commune of artists was meant to do,(25) but because it represented creative autonomy, such as God alone traditionally had. If, as Erik Erikson states, “in ‘the language of the uncorrupted core of all spiritual tradition…the identity of knowing transcendence’ can only be discovered by man when the possibility for any social definition of identity is shattered beyond any restoration,”(26) then the spiritual language of Kandinsky’s and Mondrian’s pure art conveys the knowing transcendence of creative selfhood by ruthlessly destroying the social definition of artistic identity that mimesis represents, with no possibility of restoring it to credibility. Kandinsky makes this point explicitly when he declares that “the language of art” is “superhuman.”(27)

All this is preamble to my argument that the turn to pure art was originally a religious conversion. Kandinsky, Mondrian, Rothko, and Motherwell had conversion experiences that turned them into art mystics. Kandinsky wrote: “the common relationship between works of art, which is not weakened by the passage of millennia, but is increasingly is strengthened, does not lie in the exterior, the external, but in the root of roots–in the mystical content of art.”(28) I t s three sources–the artist’s personality, his times, and “the pure and eternally artistic”(29)–converge in the creative “idiosyncracy” of the work.(30) Motherwell simply says “abstract art is a form of mysticism,”(31) but the idea remains revolutionary.

There is a fair amount of evidence indicating that all four artists experienced a crisis of selfhood–enormous self-doubt, implying a degree of self-disintegration–from which they rescued themselves by making their art as pure as possible. Art was the medium in which they enacted the spiritual conversion that saved them from complete collapse. Their artistic conversion to nonobjective art–art that withdraws from and renounces the world, rising above it, however many traces of it are left in the art, as though mithraditically protecting its purity–was a religious conversion that made themfeel inwardly safe, secure, and alive, and thus self-possessed and even self-sufficient-­ in a word, autonomous.

To make my point, I will rely on William James’s concept of religious conversion, amplified by psychoanalytic ideas. In The Varieties of Religious Experience James describes the effect of conversion on consciousness, but he does not analyze its unconscious dynamics, although he acknowledged that conversion involves what he called a “subconscious” factor. While James’s account of conversion stays largely on the surface, it nonetheless remains helpful for a preliminary understanding of the artists’ remarks about their conversion to the religion of pure art. For James, “To be converted, to be regenerated, to receive grace, to experience religion, to gain an assurance, are so many phrases which denote the process, gradual or sudden, by which a self hitherto divided, and consciously wrong inferior and unhappy, becomes unified and consciously right superior and happy, in consequence of its firmer hold upon religious realities. This at least is what conversion signified in general terms, whether or not we believe that a divine operation is needed to bring such a moral change about.”(32)

This conception of conversion occurs in the context of James’s analysis of the “two ways of looking at life,” corresponding to two kinds of human character, the healthy-minded, who need to be born only once, and…the sick souls, who must be twice-born in order to be healthy. The result is two different conceptions of the universe of our experience. In the religion of the once-born the world is a sort of rectilinear or one-storied affair, whose accounts are kept in one denomination, whose parts have just the values which naturally they appear to have, and of which a simple algebraic sum of pluses and minuses will give the total worth. Happiness and religious peace consist in living on the plus side of the account. In the religion of the twice-born, on the other hand, the world is a double- storied mystery. Peace cannot be reached by the simple addition of pluses and elimination of minuses from life. Natural good is not simply insufficient in amount and transient, there lurks a falsity in its very being. Cancelled as it all is by death if not by early enemies, it gives no final balance, and can never be the thing intended for our lasting worship. It keeps us from our real good, rather; and renunciation and despair of it are our first step in the direction of the truth. There are two lives, the natural and the spiritual, and we must lose the one before we can participate in the other.

As James notes, the sick soul is made sick by awareness of “evil as a pervasive element of the world we live in,” and “the pessimistic elements” of evil–“sorrow, pain, and death,” that is, destructiveness or negation of life, mental and physical–are inherent to natural life. Thus renunciation of natural life is renunciation of the “disease” of evil, which includes, as James says, “worry over [the] disease…itself an additional form of disease, which only adds to the original complaint.” Renunciation is in part accomplished by repentance for the natural evil in oneself, and in part by deliberately affirming goodness, consciously struggling and willing to be good, and even happy, that is, full of joie de viv r e, or delight in life, as I would call it. For James, this is clearly an unnatural if not impossible effort–a kind of supernatural effort, from the religious point of view. In other words, one mourns the death of one’s own nature—the old Adam and Eve—and labors to give birth to a new nature–the new Adam and Eve. This whole process of change induced by mournful renunciation, which is a kind of self­ transcendence, and the toughminded resolve to be good and happy, is experienced, very personally, as a spiritual conversion. One’s whole being seems at stake; life and death ride on the outcome of the conversion. The renunciation of the sickness and evil of the natural is a spiritual death which makes spiritual birth–the second birth of the twice-born–and healthy-mindedness possible. After a successful conversion, the self is no longer divided against itself–no longer divided between its actual evil and its potential goodness–but having accepted its evil and vigorously struggling to actualize its goodness, becomes reconciled to itself, and thus dynamically at peace with itself.

With these statements as background, let me foreground statements by Kandinsky and Mondrian on the one hand, and Rothko and Motherwell on the other. The former are the European pioneers of pure art, the latter are among its American advocates. This probably affects the difference in their attitudes and conception of the spiritual significance of abstract art, but I want to concentrate on that difference not on their cultural and chronological differences. Their ideas and feelings converge, but for Kandinsky and Mondrian spirituality means overcoming modern materialism, while for Rothko and Motherwell it means overcoming modern alienation. No doubt Kandinsky and Mondrian felt alienated from the modern materialistic society in which they found themselves. but it was the society’s materialism that disturbed them more than their alienation from it. They took alienation for granted; it came with spiritual superiority.

They wanted to save materialistic society through their spiritual example, as Mondrian makes clear in his assertion that “the ‘painting’ of purely abstract art….prepare(s] the realization of pure equilibrium in society itself,” that is, in the “material enviroment.” “Only then will art become life….We then see more clearly manifested the force that animates the joy of living–which says almost all that need be said concerning purely abstract art.”(33) Clearly abstract art is the antidote to what Breton called “miserabilism,” that is, “the depreciation of reality in place of its exaltation.”(34)

Abstract art is the “sacred language,” to use his term, that exalts reality, and thus overcomes the “death sentence” of miserabilism.(35) Similarly, for Kandinsky the “new [spiritual] wisdom…inaudible to the masses is first heard by the artist.” His spiritual art communicates it to the increasing “number of people who set no store by the methods of materialistic science in matters concerning the ‘nonmaterial’.” “The artists who seek the internal in the world of the external” do so not only for their own edification, but for the benefit of everyone. They make the “effort of pulling…the cart of humanity” up “the spiritual triangle that will one day reach to heaven.”

In contrast, for Rothko and Motherwell, there was no artistic way of coming to terms with modern materialistic society. Art could not transform it for the better, either by suggestion or practice. The artist was always alienated from it, and it was always hostile to his best emotional interests. Rothko and Motherwell never reconciled themselves to modern materialistic society, and they did not try to educate it for its own good. They did not try, in Kandinsky’s words, to have “a direct [transformative] influence on [its] soul.” It was beyond redemption. All that a mere painter could do was to transcend it by means of his abstract painting. The more pure-­ unrepresentational, unworldly, immaterial–the more transcendent the painting seemed. Indeed, for Rothko and Motherwell pure abstraction transformed the claustrophobic feeling of alienation into the liberating feeling of transcendence. In short, where for Kandinsky and Mondrian abstract painting was a response to an objective problem, which undoubtedly had subjective consequences, for Rothko and Motherwell it was a response to a subjective problem, however objective its cause.

Where Kandinsky and Mondrian wanted to save materialistic society, Rothko and Motherwell wanted to save their own souls.

Kandinsky writes: “Our souls, which are only now beginning to awaken after the long reign of materialism, harbor seeds of desperation, unbelief, lack of purpose. The whole nightmare of the materialistic attitude, which has turned the life of the universe into an evil, purposeless game, is not yet over. The awakening soul is still under the influence of this nightmare. Only a weak light glimmers, like a tiny point in an enormous circle of blackness. This weak light is no more than an intimation that the soul scarcely has the courage to perceive, doubtful whether this light might not itself be a dream, and the circle of blackness, reality.” Mondrian writes, somewhat more hopefully: “Well executed, works of purely abstract art will…always remain fully human, not ‘although’ but precisely ‘because’ their appearance is not a naturalistic one. Is art nearing its end? There is nothing to fear. What is this–still distant–end of art but humanity’s liberation f rom the dominance of the material and physical, thus bringing us closer to the time of matter-spirit’ equivalence?”

Shifting to Rothko and Motherwell, the emphasis is less on nightmarish materialism than on nightmarish alienation–less on materialistic society than on its devastating effect on the self, although it also turns out to be–or by force of will can be turned into–a spiritual opportunity for the self . Rothko states: “The unfriendliness of society to his activity is difficult for the artist to accept. Yet this very hostility can act as a lever for true liberation. Freed from a false sense of security and community, the artist can abandon his plastic bankbook, just as he abandoned other forms of security. Both the sense of community and of security depend on the familiar. Free of them, transcendental experiences become possible.”(36) In a related way, Motherwell writes:

The emergence of abstract art is one sign that there are still men able to assert feeling in the world. Men who know how to respect and follow their inner feelings, no matter how irrational or absurd they may first appear. From their perspective,

it is the social world that tends to appear irrational and absurd….I think that abstract art is uniquely modern–not in the sense that word is sometimes used, to mean that our art has ‘progressed’ over the art of the past…but in the sense that abstract art represents the particular acceptances and rejections of men living under the conditions of modern times. If l were asked to generalize about this condition as it has been manifest in poets, painters, and composers during the last century and a half, I should say that it is a fundamentally romantic response to modern life–rebellious, individualistic, unconventional, sensitive, irritable. I should say this attitude arose from a feeling of being ill at ease in the universe, so to speak–the collapse of religion, of the old close-knit community and family may have something to do with the origins of the feeling….But whatever the source of this sense of being unwedded to the universe, I think that one’s art is just one’s effort to wed oneself to the universe, to unify oneself through union.”(37)

And then Motherwell writes the sentence I have already quoted: “For make no mistake, abstract art is a form of mysticism.”

The following seems clear.

(1) For all the nightmarishness of modern materialistic society, Kandinsky and Mondrian are optimistic that it can be awakened to the spiritual truth by means of abstract painting, while Rothko and Motherwell have no such expectation or illusion. For them abstract painting has no social power and influence, for better or worse. In a letter to Pfister, Freud wrote that “my pessimism seems a conclusion, while the optimism of my opponents seems an a priori assumption.”(38) Similarly, the social pessimism of Rothko and Motherwell was a conclusion based on their experience of modern materialistic America, while the social optimism of Kandinsky and Mondrian was an a priori assumption based on their belief in the power of art. It is hard to decide whether this idealistic belief was narcissistically healthy or defensive, even insane and delirious, but in retrospect it seems absurd and naive–a wish fulfilling fantasy , falsifying hope as such dreams do. It is the echo of the good old times when art was integrated in society—had its place, if often as an instrument of the powers that be, spreading their ideology as though it was the gospel truth. Art was a mode of aesthetic support and aesthetic dogmatization in the service of so-called higher powers, and unconsciously Kandinsky and Mondrian wanted it to continue to be, however different the higher powers.

In contrast, the realism of Rothko and Motherwell is refreshing if also depressing. It holds out no false hope of art’s reintegration in society. No longer of direct use to society–however much it may be appropriated by society–art can be of indirect use to the individual. It can also become an aesthetic end in itself, realizing its full potential as art. Seemingly self-sufficient, it becomes a beacon of subjective intensity, integrity, and intimacy in a dismal disintegrative, cold society–a sign of empathy in a peculiarly abstract society. Indeed, in a sense the abstract painting of Rothko and Motherwell reconciles empathy and abstraction, in Worringer’s sense. It is a very personal painting, that is, painting that evokes a sense of person, organically and psychically alive in a peculiarly inorganic, death-infected technocratic/bureaucratic society–an anonymous society of indifferent administration. Adorno argued that modern art reflects such social “negativity” in its tendency to inorganic structure–the grid in particular, the emblem of universal administration, imposing its universality and uniformity on everything, geometrically dividing things irrespective of their individual differences, intellectually homogenizing them despite their heterogeneity–but the abstract painting of Rothko and Motherwell breathes organic life into the inorganic without denying its dominance.

(2) The mood–in Kandinsky’s sense, that is, as a sign of “the poetical strivings of the living soul of the artist”(39)–of all four artists is remarkably similar, once one gets beyond the difference in their attitude to society. Kandinsky speaks of “desperation, unbelief, lack of purpose.” For Mondrian, “our disequilibrated society” is is a threat to “jo ie de vivre.” For Rothko, society is unfriendly and “hostile.” For Motherwell it is “irrational and absurd.” He feels “ill at ease” and disconnected in it. In all four we see depression and isolation, verging on self-loss and meaninglessness . That is, all four are what James called sick souls. They have been sickened by the evil in the modern world, which they experience, variously, as materialistic, unbalanced, alien, and unsupportive—all evil qualities. supportive–all evil qualities.

(3)For all four, abstract art is a fantasy of religious rescue from unavoidable evil: from cynical social and scientific materialism for Kandinsky, from lack of social and personal balance and joy for Mondrian, from a crippling sense of separation and alienation, resulting from a sense of the lack and impossibility of community, for Rothko and Motherwell. Abstract art gave them faith, hope, and charity–faith in themselves, hope for the future of the world, and a freely given gift to the community, regarded as the undifferentiated whole of humanity, from which they expected nothing material in return–in a society where they do not seem to exist. Certainly they did not feel they belonged or had a place in it. In short, for Kandinsky, Mondrian, Rothko, and Motherwell abstract art offered meaningful selfhood and relationship in a world where neither seemed to exist, and seemed all but impossible to achieve. Abstract art made them feel less like failures as human beings and more equal to the world. All four artists had deep narcissistic and relational problems, and pure abstract art was a pure, abstract way of relating to others, that is, feeling a sense of community with them, with no sacrifice of selfhood, especially important because they didn’t have much self to spare.

Pure abstract art was clearly an integrative activity for them, that is, it gave them a sense of being whole, significant individuals and of being a significant, even indispensable part of the community. The integration and sense of wholeness achieved on a purely abstract or formal level in painting where it is a matter of balancing primordial visual elements of color, gesture, and space, l ed on a psychic level, to feelings of self- and world-communion, in whatever fantasy form. Such a surge of positive feelings involves the fantasy of leaving all one’s conflicts behind forever. and of experiencing a happy, harmonious–non-conflictual–relationship with the world and humanity at large (if not the people in one’s society in particular). No longer divided against oneself, one no longer feels at odds with–irreversibly separate from–society. Indeed, the equilibrium and unity of the abstract painting, however hardwon–it is a constant struggle to achieve it, and it always seems on the verge of breaking down, confirming its precariousness and fragility–creates the utopian illusion of a statically tranquil, stable self and society–a well-order social pyramid, as Van Gogh said, in which everyone has his happy place.

In other words, for Kandinsky, Mondrian, Rothko, and Motherwell, to paint abstractly was to be healthy-minded. It involved recognition of the evil of the self and the world–acceptance of the fact that they are evil by nature. Renunciation of representation of that world was renunciation of evil. The self’s resulting joie de vivre, evident, however subliminally, in the dynamics of color, gesture, and space, is not only a consequence of transcendence of the world, but the discovery of the self’s spiritual nature made possible by that transcendence, that ·is, recognition of the self’s potential for goodness, bringing with it faith in the real possibility of goodness in the world beyond the self . No doubt the joie de vivre is ambivalent, as indicated by the mournful gloom of many of Rothko’s and Motherwell’s paintings, and the desperate surge of blackness in many of Kandinsky’s. I think that when Mondrian removed gray from his painting he rose above his melancholy, but black was only eliminated in his late New York paintings, that is, at the end of his life. Even then, the beating pulse of colors the black line became in those last works had its entropic regularity–always a danger for Mondrian, who skirted entropy by asymmetry, thus conveying a lyric effect of “inner freedom ,” as Meyer Schapiro called it.(40) Such entropic regularity overtook Rothko and Motherwell’s late works, and Mondrian only avoided it by a kind of private irony.

This ambivalence–the tense fusion of death-instincts and life-instincts, for Leon Grinberg the substance of ego–signals the ongoing struggle against evil which is the sign of authentic conversion. Without that struggle, conversion is facile, Pollyannalike, and unconvincing, indicating that the convert was once-born all along, that is, incapable of engaging evil, especially the evil in the self, inevitably turning it against itself–splitting it at the root–and of imagining any attitude other than the natural attitude, to misuse Husserl’s idea.

The problem with conversion is that, however authentic, it is premised on a fantasy of psychic escape that does not preclude capture and hanging by society. There is a serious failure of reality-testing in it. Much the way the Ambrose Bierce soldier who was being hung by his captors fantasized that he freed himself just as the trap opened beneath him–the Civil War story is told from the point of view of his conviction, so that we don’t realize the truth until the end, when there is a sudden shift to an external observer’s point of view–the abstract painter may be deceiving himself into believing that he is free when he is not. And yet without the absurd, even psychotic fantasy of liberation and transcendence that is at the core of conversion there is no way Kandinsky, Mondrian, Rothko, and Motherwell could begin to do the psychic work, that is, the actual work of conversion, which involves a working through of evil, in the form of art-work, to use Fairmairn’s term—I accept Arnheim’s idea of isomorphism, which proposes, in the words of Gilbert Rose, that “the structure of art and the emotions are homologous”(41)–necessary to remedy their misery, let alone pretend to change the mood of the world. Pure abstract painting is a space of conversion in which the emotional ideal of peace, which hovers over the painting as a whole, competes with the aesthetic reality of conflict and struggle that is the nitty-gritty of the painting’s structure, with the whole enterprise catalyzed by the artist’s omnipotent belief in his revolutionary ability to fundamentally change his life, and even that of the whole world.

It should be noted that the convert abstract artist’s isolation does not necessarily help his self-work. The usual religious convert enters a community of like-minded believers, who help him sustain his new-found faith in himself and God, with its accompanying belief in the possible–indeed, eventual–convers ion of the whole world, so that it will be one grand community of true believers. But the conversion of the abstract painter does not bring him into a community of like-minded believers–an alternative society of the faithful. He remains at odds with other abstract painters, a victim of the credo of individualism that at once motivates and hobbles the avant-garde artist. Indeed, uncompromising individualism is supposedly a badge of honor that confirms vanguardism . Even the Blaue Reiter group had its conflicts–differences of opinion, to put it politely–and eventually broke up, and not only because of the first world war. The pure abstract artist remains profoundly alone–his purity and self­ esteem depend on it–however much he may now and then associate with other abstract artists. It is as though they would interfere with his development rather than encourage it–interfere with his spontaneity rather than support it. One only has to read Hans Hartung’s skepticism about the ideas of Kandinsky and the deceptive personality of Mondrian to realize how tenuous and spiteful the relationship between artists that seem to have an affinity can be. What Freud called the “narcissism of small differences” seems to be involved. The pure abstract artist wants to go his own way, whatever the social and, more insidiously, hidden personal cost. For going it alone in the desert–recall that Malevich metaphorically described his abstract Suprematist painting as a “desert experience”(42)–is no guarantee that one will experience conversion. It may just prolong one’s agony.

(4)For all four painters, pure abstract painting is a mystical-spiritual enterprise, independent of religious dogmas and rituals. It is a mode of transcendence that works in terms of immediate sensation rather than symbolism, however subliminally symbolic the pure abstract painting may be. Indeed, the problem was to transcend traditional spiritual symbolism by means of purely “sensational” painting, whether conceived in terms of geometrical space, as in Mondrian’s and Rothko’s case, or gesture, as in Kandinsky’s and Motherwell’s case. Not exclusively, of course: Mondrian’s color planes become color gestures in his late New York work, as though recapitulating and refining the gesturalism of his early works, especially of the so-called plus and minus paintings–the New York work is a kind of regression in the service of an ego that had reached a geometrical dead end–and Rothko’s color planes are an intricate matrix of intimate gestures. Similarly, Kandinsky and Motherwell attempted to fuse spontaneous gesture and geometrical space in their later work. They wanted to loosen axiomatically inflexible geometrical space by means of energetic gesture, and give free gesture an intellectual dimension by imbuing it with geometrical deliberateness. As Plato said, geometry eternal, and their Platonization or classicizing of gesture harks back at least to Cezanne’s wish to paint like Poussin, that is, to synthesise geometrical structure and Impressionist sensation–to eternalize sensation, which is inseperable from painting, as Boccioni said.(43) No doubt Ehrenzweig’s distinction between gestalt and gestalt-free forms, and their convergence, helps explain this synthesis. Pure abstract painting invites one to meditate on the feelings aroused by and associated with primordial sensations-­ whether geometrically or gesturally evident–rather than to read a narrative of supernatural life and otherworldly society to prepare oneself for them.

In pure abstract painting visual sensation is enriched by what Deikman calls “the phenomenon of ‘sensory translation,’ through which psychic actions such as conflict, repression, and problem-solving are perceived through relatively unstructured experiences of light, color, movement.”(44) Every sensory experience of them is heightened or enhanced–radically transformed–by such sensory translation, which involves projection into them, even projective identification with them. It converts physical light, color, movement into more meaningful–emotionally meaningful– experiences than they would otherwise be. I think that Kandinsky’s color symbolism–his attempt to correlate particular colors and particular feelings—is implicitly a matter of… sensory translation, ultimately the dialectical fusion or cross-pollination of sensations and psychic actions. It is what makes the sensations and feelings afforded by pure abstract painting seem more “refined” than everyday sensations and feelings, as Kandinsky said.

Sensory translation gives the pure abstract painting its mystical content, to recall Kandinsky’s term. The abstract painting we perceive as great–experience as spiritual–appears to make this translation spontaneously, right in front of our eyes. It is experienced as unquestionably and profoundly subjective–imbued with psychic actions (“spiritual gestures”) of all kinds and an externalization of psychic space (“spiritual geometry”), both necessarily abstract, for the psyche is not physical, however rooted in the body it may be. It invites our instant subjective participation, that is, instantly makes us aware of our psychic activity–of our so-called stream of consciousness . It in effect converts us to ourselves—compells us to experience ourselves as and convinces us that we are personal subjects rather than social objects–that we have an individual self not simply social identity. We unconsciously retranslate or re-convert light, color, movement back into psychic actions, just as the abstract painter unconsciously translated or converted psychic actions into light, color. movement. We unconsciously experience pure abstract painting as pure psychic action, and through it we seem to experience our own psychic activity in apparently pure form. This is what Harold Rosenberg meant when he described it as action painting and an arena of self-creation.(45)

Sensory translation affords an enriched sensory immediacy. It generates a ripeness of immediacy that seems to tear the veil of representation open irreparably, as Yves Bonnefoy says. According to him, it is in pure abstract painting that “one imagines that…the immediate exists,” that it is “easily verified,” and that it seems “nothing short of miraculous.”(46) It may be, as Bonnefoy argues, that the abstract painter’s refusal of and need to replace and defeat “conventional readings of the world …keeps them alive. and in the end…merely adds to the complexities of the sign as it works on being.” Nonetheless, for however brief an enchanted experiential moment, the immediacy of surface and space achieved in pure abstract painting seems to “transcend perception” in the very act of being perceived. Bonnefoy finally declares that “there is no immediacy, there is only the desire for the immediate. which so many feel.” But in the pure abstract painting of Kandinsky, Mondrian, Rothko, and even Motherwell–of all four , the last relinquishes symbolism the least–the immediate crudity and constraints. In short, this sudden flash of immediacy–of intense and all- encompassing immediate sensation–is the instrument and “proof” of conversion.

Baudelaire referred to it, unknowingly, when he compared the freshness of vision in an imaginative work of art to that of a child looking at the world for the first time, and to the intense oceanic sensations he experienced using opium. Similarly, what James called the “subliminal uprush” in the exceptional mental state of genius, and what Kandinsky described as the experience of walking through color, articulates, in however metaphorical a way, a phenomenology of pure immediacy. The gist of the conversion experience is this feeling of pure immediacy–of pure presence, with nothing communal and familiar present, an absence which confirms its mystical character. The experience of pure abstract painting is optimally one in which the experience of timeliness conveyed by the feeling o f pure immediacy is at the same ” time an experience of timelessness, which is why it can be called mystical. The timely and timeless merge in pure immediate sensation, bespeaking the sense of merger with the divine–being wedded to the universe as a whole, as Motherwell says–in which time is altogether transcended.

Now the question is: where did the turn to pure abstract art–modern spiritual art–originate? In what I want to call the spiritual unconscious : it is a direct expression of the spiritual unconscious. I want to suggest that the spiritual unconscious only makes itself felt and known, unpredictably, when the self seems to have reached the point of no return from narcissistic and relational injury–when it seems wounded with no hope of recovery or repair. That is, the self is wounded by its internal perception of itself –more particularly, of its own evil tendencies and character, that is, its destructiveness and destroyed state–and of the external world, which is also experienced as thoroughly evil. Both perceptions are accurate, and so is the perception of incurability–the impossibility of healing. It is then that the spiritual unconscious becomes manifest: it is the sudden promise of magical healing and health in a situation of terminal mental illness and absolute isolation–of complete hopelessness and helplessness. It is some neglected aspect of the unconscious spontaneously arising to the occasion of total defeat by life and the world. It is the visionary moment of truth that ends the seemingly endless dark night of the soul. It is a mirage, containing in itself all the meaningfulness of life, that unexpectedly arises in the meaningless desert of the self and the world, indeed, the worldly self and the selfless world. This promise takes the form of the wish to change one’s life entirely- –to convert to a new way of life. And also to convert the world–to change it for the better, once and for all. The wish is at once a revolt against and revolution of the lifeworld. The paradox is that the impulsive utopian promise can be fulfilled, in an emotionally concrete way, in art-work–abstract and otherwise–which can offer moments of healing and health to both the serious artist and the serious spectator, that is those who are seriously creative, or rather, to use Winnicott’s term, actively “create into something rather than passively take it for granted.

It is the unequivocal wish for total healing and health, leading to a fantasy of self-help or self-rescue–the fantasy of grace and mercy that emerges from the spiritual unconscious–that pure abstract art satisfies. Through it the artist helps himself, rescues himself from his depression, comes to experience himself as a living being-­ organically and spontaneously alive–rather than a dead nothing. The creativity of the spiritual unconscious shows itself in his re-creation of himself as a pure artist, which saves him from self-annihilation. It is because it seems to magically and irrationally accomplish this–because it is so emotionally absurd–that pure abstract painting is the most serious and necessary painting of the twentieth century. Rosenberg once said that the “test” of painting is its “seriousness–and the test of seriousness is the degree to which the act on the canvas is an extension of the artist’s total effort to make over his experience,” his “experience of transformation.”(47) The urgent effort the pioneer abstract painters made to transform and purify painting, and the great difficulty, uncertainty, and anxiety with which they did so–an effort they repeated again and again until they were convinced they had crossed the Rubicon into the promised I.and of pure painting–was a personal as well as artistic effort. The transformation of impure into pure painting was a self-transformation and self-purification: the artist’s transformation of himself from a lost soul to a creative god–from abjectness to grandiosity. It is not clear that contemporary abstract painting has the same desperate seriousness–the same innocent fantasy of art as salvation .


(1) Kenneth C. Lindsay and Peter Vergo, eds., Kandinsky : Complete Writings on Art (New York : Da Capo, 1994), p. 143

(2) 1bid., p. 98

(3)1bid., p. 177

(4)1bid., p. 515

(5)1bid. (6)1bid., p. 513

(?)Ibid., p. 512

(8)1bid., pp. 235-36

(9)1bid., p. 235

(1O)D.W. Winnicott, The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment (New York: International Universities Press. 1965), p. 25

(11)Ibid.. p. 192


(13) Quoted in Hugh Honour, Romanticism (New York : Harper & Row. 1979). p.


(14) Quoted in ibid., p. 66 (15)lindsay and Vergo, p. 135 (16)Honour. p. 87

(1?)lindsay and Vergo, p. 235

(18)Harry Holtzman and Martin. S. James, eds.. The New Art–The New Life:

The Collected Wr i tings of Piet Mondrian (New York: Da Capo, 1993), pp. 318-19 (19)Harry Stack Sullivan. The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry (New York:

Norton, 1953), p. 165

(20)Lindsay and Vergo, p. 139

(21)T. W. Adorno. Negative Dialectics (New York : Seabury, 1973), p. 362 (22)1bid.

(23) lindsay and Vergo, p. 167

(24)Wilfred Bion, Cogitations (London: Karnac, 1992), pp. 29-30

(25) Meyer Schapiro, Modern Art: 19th and 20th Centuries. Selected Papers

(New York: George Braziller, 1960), p. 193

(26)Quoted by Heinz Lichtenstein, The Dilemma of Human Identity (New York and London: Jason Aronson, 1983), p. 158

(27)Lindsay and Vergo, p. 83

(28)1bid., p. 175 (29)1bid.I p. 173

(30)1bid., p. 137-38

(31) Stephanie Terenzio, ed., “What Abstract Art Means to Me,” The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 86

(32) William James, Varieties of Religi ous Experience (New York: Modern Library, n.d.), p. 186. All subsequent quotations from James are from this book.

(33) Holtzman and James, p. 201

(34) Andre Breton, “Away with Miserabilism!”, Surrealism and Painting (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), p. 348

(35)1bid., p. 347

(36) Quoted in Michel Butor, “Rothko: The Mosques of New York,” Inventory (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968), p. 267

(37) Quoted in Terenzio, pp. 85-86

(38) Quoted in W.W. Meissner, Psychoanalysis and Religious Experience (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984), p. 81

(39) Lindsay and Vergo, p. 129 (40)Schapiro, p. 41

(41)Gilbert J. Rose, Necessary Illusion: Art as Witness (Madison, CT:

International Universities Press, 1996), p. 80

(42)In his essay on “Suprematism,” Malevich wrote: “No more ‘likeness of reality,’ no idealistic images–nothing but a desert! But this desert is filled with the spirit of nonobjective sensation which pervades everything….a blissful feeling of liberating nonobjectivity drew me forth into the ‘desert ,· where nothing is real except feeling…. and so feeling became the substance of my life.” Quoted in Herschel B. Chipp, ed., Theories of Modern Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), p. 342.

Kandinsky, p. 141, says something similar: “The spirit that will lead us into the realms of tomorrow can only be recognized through feeling.”

(43)Quoted in Chipp, p. 295

(44)W. W. Meissner, Ignatius of Loyola: The Psychology of a Saint (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992), p. 78

(45) Harold Rosenberg, The Tradi tion of the New (New York : McGraw-Hill, 1965), p. 25

(46) Yves Bonnefoy, “On Painting and Poetry, on Anxiety and Peace,” The Lure and the Truth of Painting (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1995), pp. 171-72

(47) Rosenberg, pp. 33, 35

Poet, Guitarist, Painter: a Review of Elizabeth J. Coleman’s Fifth Generation

by Lee Slonimsky

Elizabeth J. Coleman. The Fifth Generation.  New York, NY.  Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2016. 88 pages.

In Elizabeth J. Coleman’s dynamic new collection The Fifth Generation, the author’s spiritual perspective merges with a musical ear and an unerring gift for language to create a highly fulfilling experience for the reader.  And let us not leave out the vivid imagery present in these poems.  The author, a talented painter as well as guitarist (her compelling work graces the front cover), and poet, brings together all her gifts in this 88 page masterpiece.

At a time when American poetry is fragmented into various “schools” within the greater schism between free and formal verse, an underlying theme of acceptance in Coleman’s work is not only refreshingly harmonious, but also a welcome antidote to the narrowness that abounds generally in our culture.  In addition, her sense of the largeness of time, and the perspective it brings, is breathtaking.  A poem early in the book (“On Trying to Tell My Husband Something Important While He Stares at the New York Times on His I-Pad”) includes one of the most memorable lines in the entire collection:

“until only the wind remembers/

And this superb poem does a wonderful job of contrasting the temporal and the immortal, “ancient mountain passes” in line one dexterously highlighting the references to recent and much more recent technology in the title (the newspaper, not as old as we think, and the i-pad).  This 15 line gem has to be read in its entirety to be totally appreciated, but it is a wonderful reflection on the transitoriness of our daily concerns compared to the wind and to the foreverness of a hummingbird.

Personal experience—and the poet has had a lot of diverse ones—and the passage of time join evocatively in a poem like “In the Farmhouse,” with its awesome concluding lines:

“their eyes that glorious
forget-me-not blue that grows riotously on a farm.”

There is no proselytizing in these deeply spiritual poems, instead a powerful reverence for the dramatic history of our physical world which can bring its own kind of solace to challenges like aging and mortality.  Just a few examples:

“Gorillas stay up all night to groom their dead,” (“One Way of Looking at Grace”)
“We come from [the sea]”, (“A Church Funeral”)
“the ancient fish they’ve discovered/that’s sensitive to electricity” (“Belief”)

Quoted above are three slivers of the poet’s vast tree of knowledge, three slivers that emphasize a unity of life well beyond the obvious, the sort of insight that poets have traditionally been cherished for providing.  Coleman’s stunning first collection Proof (Spuyten Duyvil, 2014) is even more emphatically “proved” in The Fifth Generation’s display of insight into humanity and nature alike, and the many daily moments in which strangers touch and different people share, moments that will rarely if ever get in a newspaper or onto the news feed of an iphone, but that are the deepest news of life on earth, so many millennia long.

brief disclaimer:  two of my own sonnets appear in this collection, alongside translations by the author

Review of Carol Lipszyc’s The Saviour Shoes and Other Stories

by Paul D. Green

Toronto, Canada: Inanna Publications and Education, Inc., 2014.185 pp.

Why, one might ask, is there a need for yet another book on the Holocaust? That’s a fair question. Here are two valid responses. (I’m sure the interested reader can come up with many more.) First of all, many of the remaining Holocaust survivors are in their eighties or nineties, and there is a serious need for valid texts to tell and retell the stories of those who suffered such unimaginable horrors—especially since they will no doubt be gone soon.

Second, it is well known that Holocaust denial has been on the increase for the last few years, and it is important to refute the cruel and insensitive lies of those who claim that the atrocities of the Holocaust, including the murder of 6,000,000 Jews and 5,000,000 others, have been greatly exaggerated or are mere fabrications.

The book under review, The Saviour Shoes and Other Stories by Carol Lipszyc, a collection of stories about the Holocaust, is a fine piece of literature and, like most good literature, has its own inherent value. It not only fulfills the double function mentioned above of keeping alive the stories of survivors and reminding us of the brutality in Nazi-controlled Europe, but its memorable characters, gripping events, and simple but often beautiful language have a major impact on the reader.

The major protagonists are child survivors, including adolescents, and as the author notes, many of the stories are based on real-life incidents, including some that are influenced by occurrences to her own parents. (Lipszyc is the daughter of two child survivors.) Thus a number of the stories are inextricable combinations of history and fiction.

Through the perspective of children and young adults we experience life under the Nazis. Not surprisingly, many of the children are separated from their parents, some through parental death (primarily by means of starvation, disease, or executions by sadistic storm troopers) or the unexpected appearance of Righteous Gentiles asked by desperate Jewish parents to become, at the risk to their lives, surrogate parentsto unsuspecting children. In one of the stories, “City of Dreams,” two brothers, Ernest, the older, and Peter, the younger, become part of a kindertransport from Vienna, by which trainloads of children travel to Holland and then, by boat, to England to be adopted by English couples. The two boys realize they will probably never see their parents again.

This collection of enlightening stories makes us aware that even in the most traumatic circumstances children like to play games. In their play-acting they often make fun of political leaders, as they do in one of these stories. In “City of Dreams,” after the children have arrived in England, “some of the older boys…caricature Hitler, the way he thrusts his chest forward when he rails at the world and wheels his arm up and down like a mad crosswalk guard.” And when they get tired of mocking Hitler, they “move to Goebbel’s bad leg.”

There is a somewhat different mood in “The Elder of the Jews,” which takes place in the Lodz Ghetto, with boys on the street playing at being soldiers. Then one of the older boys, 13-year-old Lipa,offers to “play the part of Chaim Rumkowski, Chairman and head of the Lodz Ghetto” (who is the “Elder of the Jews” in the title of the story). Lipa plays his part so well that, in a fascinating instance of child psychology, the game turns real for the other boys, and they begin urging Lipa for more food and medications for family members. The scene is a reminder of the less-than-ideal conditions in the ghetto. The illusion created by Lipa is dispelled only when a woman shouts at the boys from her window, reminding them about violations of curfew, and suddenly other parents show up in the street to get their sons to go home.

Righteous Gentiles function in these stories, as they did in real life, not only as adoptive parents but also as unofficial child protectors. In the title story, “The Saviour Shoes,” an unnamed homeless boy, who lost his mother and younger sister in a massacre at the ghetto of Mir Radziwill Castle (his father had died probably from tuberculosis or some other lung disease), seeks help from a Polish farmer.

The farmer, who has a wife and three daughters, initially tells him, “I cannot open my home to you,” but overcome by a “curious and disquieting compassion, a flutter of the heart, like a bird’s wing on the eaves of his shed,” he changes his mind, helps the boy builda protective bunker, “inserting a metal pipe in the dirt for the boy to breathe through” in bad weather, allows him to use his shed in warmer weather, and “once every few weeks…left him cooked potatoes, cabbage or carrots in the pig stalls.”He also warns him when German soldiers are about to conduct “an imminent manhunt in the forest.” Without the farmer’s assistance, the boy would almost certainly not have survived.

Another example of the benevolent influence of a Righteous Gentile is “Homage to an Ordinary Man,” where 16-year-old Yitzchak is one of “300 young men from the Polish town of Staszow” ordered to the work camp at Skarzysko-Kamienna. Not long after arriving, Yitzchak volunteers for a work detail requiring twelve young men to “handle highly explosive material.”The meister, or head of the work detail, Weisleder, has an undeserved reputationas a “cruel beast” who will surely “kill them” [i.e., his workers] within the week,” but instead turns out to be a compassionate man, which Yitzchak and some of the others recognize from the kindly way he looks at them. He provides them with real soup—“not the sweet watery soup [i.e., the kind served to other Jewish prisoners], but the soup with carrots, onions, potatoes, turnips.”

Weisleder’s ultimate act of salvation is to hide his twelve men during the process of liquidating the camp:

While approximately forty percent of the prisoners were being shot, he ushered the twelve into an ammunition factory. … There on the oil-stained floors, Weisleder slept with his disciples[emphasis mine] and brought them food.

Eventually Yitzchak survives even a journey to Buchenwald concentration camp, and he survives the war itself, but without the protection of this Righteous Gentile survival would have been unlikely. The good-hearted Weisleder seems to me to be a version of Oscar Schindler, the German industrialist who saves more than a thousand Jewish prisoners from extermination. Weisleder saves only twelve, but 12 is a highly symbolic number. (There is a fair amount of symbolism all throughout these tales.) The number 12 may perhaps refer to the twelve tribes of ancient Israel and/or to Christ and his 12 disciples. (See above reference to Weisleder sleeping with his “disciples.”)

In some ways the most unusual tales in Lipszyc’s collection are“A Question of Gender” and “A Jewish Interrogation.” Both stories are about attempts to conceal the respective child-protagonists’ identities. In the first case a little boy, Reuben Feldstein, is taken in by another Righteous Gentile, Stanislawa Pacek, who protects her charge by insisting he dress as a little girl. The gender change is to ensure protection against an inspection of his genitals; the Nazis were able to pinpoint Jews from non-Jews by checking for circumcision. Thus little Rubinko (Stanislawa’s designation for the little boy) becomes Janka, a little girl, and in the process undergoes not merely a gender change but also a religious “conversion.” (Stanislawa takes him, dressed as a girl, to the church to which she belongs.) Their separation after several years is painful for both; they are so close that he refers to her as “Mamusia”(‘Mother’). When his aunt, the only relative to survive the war, comes for him, she tells Stanislawa that she intends to take her nephew to Palestine.

In “A Jewish Interrogation” a 16-year-old girl who has posed as a Christian during the war must come to terms with her Jewish faith and prove to a group of religious Jews on a train that she is Jewish. The problem is that during the war a German boy calls her and her aunt Polish pigs, and she angrily responds in Yiddish that she will “punch his teeth out.” The realization that she has put herself and her aunt in danger by speaking Yiddish creates in her a form of partial amnesia: “That evening and for the rest of the war, I could not retrieve a spoken word of Yiddish.” Consequently, she cannot respond in Yiddish (only in Polish) to her Jewish interrogators. Even though she can answer their questions about Passover and other Jewish holidays, they nonetheless doubt that she is truly Jewish. Like the aunt of Rubinko/Janka, she dreams of “embarking on a boat to Palestine” to renew her Jewish faith.

A brief review such as this one cannot do justice to the complexity of themes, characterization, tone, and imagery and other stylistic devices of this extraordinary collection, not to mention the high-powered emotional impact the stories have on the reader. For example, consider this poignant passage on homeless children in the infamous Warsaw Ghetto for its power:

In the dark, against the curfew, the voices of abandoned children drifted up like smoke and charred the windows as they moaned for alms, for bread, for a place to sleep. The morning found them ready for burial, frozen on streets or on the steps of dilapidated houses, without shoes, in ragged clothes.(“The Deathwatcher”)

Anyone interested in the subject of the Holocaust should purchase a copy of this wonderful book as soon as possible.

Review of Lee Slonimsky’s Pythagore, Amoureux, Pythagoras in Love, Sonnets (translation by Elizabeth J. Coleman)

by Licia Hahn

A Review of Pythagore, Amoureux, Pythagoras in Love, Sonnets by Lee Slonimsky; French translation by Elizabeth J. Coleman, 2015, Folded Word

Pythagore, Amoureux – Pythagoras in Love, Sonnets by Lee Slonimsky with a French translation by Elizabeth J. Coleman, is a remarkable act of translation, recreation, and a noteworthy collaboration of poets.

Much like Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams, Slonimsky’s vocation (as an investment executive) informs his poetry. The central persona of Pythagoras is the poet’s alter ego; he, like Slonimsky, was schooled in mathematics.

“Pythagoras, for one, values his name:
he’s faithful always to what math proclaims”

“Marriage Vows”, Pythagore Amoureux, p. 96

Pythagoras was also philosopher and poet. The protagonist Pythagoras takes us on a philosophical quest to understand the elusive mysteries of nature, love and the divine through numbers.

“he longs to make a perfect, mystic sense
of all the numbers earth and mind allow.”

“Watching Day and Night”, Pythagore, Amoureux, p.6

The central tenant of the Pythagoreans was that nature and the cosmos could be best comprehended through mathematics. The poet’s examinations of birds and how sunlight “bisects” a tree, brings a new, elegant, and moving appreciation for this ancient philosophy.

Music was the spark for the Pythagoreans’ philosophical insight. They realized that the structure of musical harmonies was mathematical; they used the language of numbers to explain the universe and nature. Life, nature, and the cosmos were governed by a set of organizing principles—some may call it God.

“…The sun is teaching math, this cool May day,
to every leaf and branch that understands
geometry, the gospel of its rays
this is the only meaning he can find.
Each arrowed ray to earth’s a perfect sign
For angle, number shown to trees and man.”

“Teacher in the Woods”, Pythagore, Amoureux, p.40

As Coleman recounted in an interview, “It was just an intuitive thing.  I really liked the book and the idea of it existing in French. And I fell in love with that first poem in the book.” After translating “The Last Digit of Pi”, the first poem in Slonimsky’s Pythagoras in Love, 2007, Orchises Press, Coleman was hooked.

Coleman’s watercolor “Mediterranean Sea”, graces the cover of the collection. With her diverse creative talents, she amplifies the meaning, sound and experience of Slonimsky’s poems. Her versatility as a poet, musician and artist are always in evidence. The beauty and lyricism of the French language burnishes the text, enriching the reader’s journey into the senses, nature, and the mysteries of life.

Coleman achieves her masterful translation by avoiding the constraints of the sonnet form or a narrow translation. She honors Slonimsky in maintaining the spirit and intent of his work. In the “Loneliness of Exile/La Solitude de L’Exil”, p.76, Coleman takes appropriate liberties to retain the poem’s rhythms and meaning.

“The sky and water have a love affair
At dawn covertly, so the woods won’t know”

“Le ciel et l’eau sont amants
A l’aube, scretement, pour que ces bois l’ignornent”’
Le ciel et l’eau sont amants
à l’aube, secrètement, pour que ces bois l’ignorent,

To translate the translator, Coleman’s French version translated literally back to the English reads:

 “The sky and water are lovers
At dawn, secretly, so that these woods ignore them.”

Her translations frequently gift the reader with rhymes that arise organically and harmoniously.  In “Philosopher in Love/ Le Philosophe, Amoureux”, p.26,  “Un est/le plus parfait” or “rayonnment/brulant” are good examples from the verses below:

“…for him eternity’s in numbers: One
the more perfect, like his great love, bequeaths
a universe benevolent and full
of radiance beyond the physical,
alongside eyes as bright as molten sun.”

 “….pour lui les nombres cachent l’éternité: Un est
le plus parfait, comme son grand amour, lègue
un univers bienveillant et plein de rayonnement
audelà du monde physique,
à côté des yeux aussi clairs qu’un soleil brûlant. ”

The musicality of the French language supersedes the constraints of the poems’ original sonnet form. Much as Slonimsky’s exacting choice of words and the sonnet structure bring us to deep reflection, Coleman’s translation meets the challenge of striking the right balance between structure and autonomy.  She is unfettered in her masterful use of the sound patterns of French language to capture the essence of the poem’s meaning.

The collection can be especially enjoyed as an act of immersion; each poem urges the reader to the next. The refrains of sun, birds, leaves, and ponds and the mathematical structures of geometry, angles, and circles—“sun-math of sharp ray angles” (“Lecturer in the Mirror”, p.52) call the reader to contemplate the central themes again and again. The body of work speaks to nature as man’s instructor, and math as nature’s translator.

“The Crow’s Point of View” p.20, illustrates the poet’s virtuosity in capturing nature as man’s “new academy”:

“And yet, when air is still, the water gleams
With trapezoids and ellipses; sunbeams
Seem shining summaries of all the ways
To measure surfaces. Dangling oak leaves
and pond instruct him well in ray-seamed math:
his new academy, a wooded path”

Coleman pays homage to form with a rhyming couplet at the end. “His new academy” becomes “une nouvelle lecon”– a new lesson to rhyme with “rayons”.

“Les feuilles frémissantes de chênes et l’etang lui enseigne bien
les mathématiques cousues de rayons;
dans le sentier de bois, une nouvelle leçon.”

This poem perfectly typifies the recurrent juxtaposition of geometry and nature.

“a loud crow lectures oak leaves just beyond
his line of sight on how a dappled breeze
confuses light. And yes, he must agree
that shadows lie, that rippling branches tease
false theorems from the axes of sun’s rays.”

Coleman artfully strings “corbeau”, “forte”,  “Pythagore” and “Il est d’accord” to connect in a beautiful alignment of sound and rhyme. 

“un corbeau de voix forte que Pythagore ne voit qu’à peine
enseigne aux feuilles de chêne comment une brise tachetée
embrouille la lumière. Il est d’accord:
les ombres sont menteuses, et les branches onduleuses
tirent des théorèmes faux des rayons de soleil."

The poet wanders along his wooded path; poem follows poem like a flock of birds, beckoning the reader to some distant destination. The timeless themes and spare elegance of Slonimsky’s poetry and Coleman’s beautiful translation resonate long after each reading. Slonimsky’s marvelous collection of poems takes us on a transformative journey and we emerge having touched the divine. 

Review of Robert Zaller’s Speaking to Power

by Miriam Kotzin

Robert Zaller. Speaking to Power. (Philadelphia PA: The Moonstone Press, 2015).  77pp.

Robert Zaller’s Speaking to Power is an impressive collection of superb poetry that evinces the author’s wide-ranging knowledge and indicates a passion for justice.  Zaller’s erudition joins his imagination in writing poems that are responses to literature and philosophy:  not fan fiction (or fan poetry) but daring explorations, expansions.

In Speaking to Power, Herbert, Mayakovsky, Parra, Shakespeare (Hamlet, Julius Caesar), Sophocles, Goya, Giacometti, de Saussure, Voltaire, and their works are subjects for poems, as are a number of historical and Biblical figures. Zaller is a master of the dramatic poem; moreover these poems are unflinching as they confront cruelty.

This is not to say that the poems are grim—far otherwise.  “The Last Citizen” speaks as a poet  “…toiling from word to word / like a miner without a lamp, chipping away  / in my darkness at the imaginary / rockface of the world.”

The book’s opening poem, “Simple Answers,” sets the tone for what follows:  “The simple answers lie before us / with the rectitude of keys / for which all doorways have vanished.” 

This is followed by a response to the poem by Zbigniew Herbert, “Herbert’s Pebble.”  Zaller’s narrator, like the narrator Herbert’s poem, holds a pebble in his hand, “the furnace of [his] palm,” an action echoed by Claudius in Zaller’s “Claudius’s Prayer,” one of a series of Hamlet poems. In the play, Claudius kneels but cannot pray; Shakespeare’s scene ends with the couplet, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. / Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”  Zaller’s poem ends with a similar statement, even though the title tantalizes the reader with the possibility of the prayer’s words.  It takes a spine of steel to write something that calls upon the reader to compare a passage with Shakespeare’s. Zaller’s poem holds up to the scrutiny:

         “No thought or prayer
         can comfort like cold stone
         weighed in the palm
         of one’s hand.
         Yet stone, too, is fire-born
         and fire, as is known,
         lives the death of air
         through which thought and prayer
         likewise flow.
         So one can hold nothing then
         that has not come
         and will not go
         no more than pulse of wren
         that strains at flight
         and never goes?…”

All too often political poems are more polemics than poetry—not so these admirable poems. When they are responses to other work, their excellence invites re-reading the source and then returning to Speaking to Power. Robert Zaller’s latest collection is certain to be read with appreciation for its insight, its sensitive use of figures of speech, and its command of cultural history.

Review of Daniel Mark Epstein’s Dawn to Twilight: New and Selected Poems

by Miriam Kotzin

Daniel Mark Epstein. Dawn to Twilight:  New and Selected Poems. Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, LA, 2015.  157 pp.

The arrival of a volume of new and selected poems by an accomplished poet is a much-anticipated event, as was Daniel Mark Epstein’s Dawn to Twilight, which rewards the reader from the early poems through the most recent, confirming that Epstein is a superb poet and translator. 

The poems in this volume span nearly five decades of insightful observations and explorations, an extraordinary, skilled use of language.  Do you read a book of poems, browsing here and there, choosing poems first by title?  Or, with a volume of collected or selected poems, do you read with some discipline from back to front—or the reverse?  In the first of a series of helpful notes Epstein says that his “longer narrative and dramatic” poems from earlier books have been omitted here; instead, he included lyric poems “in roughly chronological order [to] see if those poems would tell a story on their own….I was surprised by the extent to which these shorter poems, irregularly autobiographical, now emerge as a unified autobiography.”

Even without the extra level of interest, the poetry offers uncommon pleasure in poems in a wide range of subjects: those that invite the autobiographical reading (“The Code,” “For a Child Frightened by Lightning,” “Schoolhouses,”  “The Book of Matches,” “Heading Home,” “The Music Lesson,” “My Desk,” “Dawn to Twilight”); those that are inspired by art or other writers (“Russian Village Suite” after Marc Chagall, “Homage to Mallarmé,” “After Whitman’s Lincoln Speech”); portraits and character studies (“The Secret,” “Miss Ellie’s 78th Spring Party,”  “The Follies,” “Cash Only, No Refund, No Return,” “Beauty and the Beast”); or poems about the natural world (“The American White Pelican,”  “Cygnus Musicus,” “Bobolink,” “The Vanishing Oriole,” “The Comb Bearers,” “Fireflies”).  

Taking obvious delight in its exaggerations, the daring “Night Medallion,” with its phallic “Eager candle,” goes way beyond Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”).
“My woman is sharper than new truth,
            a clean bullet hole in glass.
Winter cuts its teeth on her, the sun
            cuts its hand on her,
she’s too hot for the beach, the golden sand
            goes all to white crystal under her.

She’s so proud, the full moon is her mirror.

What is the greater compliment, that a poet write a poem to express his great love and his being overwhelmed by his beloved’s beauty—or for him to be unable speechless?  In “The Glass,” he writes that the woman

            “with all the tricks of nature to multiply
            leaf upon leaf and heartbeat upon beat
            has come to live in my mind as if
            the world were not wide enough to hold her beauty.”
            “When she walks into the room something must break,
            mind’s image meets her coming with such force.
            My glass is shattered and I cannot speak.”

The musicality of these lines is enviable: the beautiful assonance, for example, in the last line.

“A Book of Matches” is an extended metaphor of a marriage ending—as the speaker sets the house on fire; the poem opens with the answer to a question as yet unasked: why?—  “Because I could not stay with her forever…”   The flames climb from the basement to the upstairs:

            “Because I could not hold her long enough
            The fire wrapped our bed in a cruel curtain
            Where our bodies once shone making love

            And at last it burst into the children’s room
            Furious to find them gone, no longer children
            Any more than we are bride and groom.”

Who is the “The Lion Tamer at 2:00 A.M.”?  The poem begins with commentary on human nature: “The crowd is always on the lion’s side…” The poem develops with another observation, “Hard to survive this art, harder to please.”  Not only the lion tamer, this is the poet speaking, “How can I make a show with ten tame lions?”

There’s more than enough show in Dawn to Twilight.   Daniel Mark Epstein’s selection of lyric poetry in this book makes me want a second selected volume, this one with translations and longer poems.

Review of Laurel Blossom’s Longevity

by Miriam Kotzin

Laurel Blossom.  Longevity.  New York, New York: Four Way Books.  2015.  pp.72.

Laurel Blossom’s narrative prose poem, Longevity, is a stunner, one of the important book-length poems of the 21st century. Themes intertwine: family, friendship, loss, and memory. When the narrator of the poem says, “Everything is elegy,” the statement is both an observation and a guide to the reader, as the narrator provides a key to the poem: “Where it says she, it means Margaret or Lucy or my poor mother. /Where it says she, it means said. It means dead.”

Memory is not simply film: it is fragile, “brittle,” in danger of snapping: “My whole life flashing. Brittle, bitter frames of film run backwards.”   The words “brittle” and “bitter” are yoked by sound; one informs the other. The metaphor of a past remembered, re-experienced, is “like clacking film.”  The figure continues:  “Memory catches on the sprockets of grief.”  The narrator grieves her friend, her sister, and her mother—yet the poem is filled with light and bright colors, flowers. 

Memorable, original images offer pleasure through their economy, their musicality, and their startling ability to revise the world: “Raindrops hanging on the laundry line to dry” and “Orange shift shimmering in  sleeveless  breeze.” The genius resides, in part, in departures from the expected:  the shift shimmers not in the sunlight, but in the breeze; it is not the shift that is sleeveless, but the breeze.

A similar effect occurs in the images of the destruction of the World Trade Center that haunt Longevity.  The post 9/11 World Trade Center lies in rubble; the iconic image of the uplifted grid becomes “Charred ruins like bones of a great cathedral, arches like hands in smoldering prayer.”  The book begins with a prologue, the first line, mysterious only when we first read it—on second reading, we recognize that this is Margaret falling from the World Trade Center:  “Now when she falls, she falls up, on blue, unfolded wings.” As Lucy dies of cancer, she has a “failing falling body.”  And the mother’s death?  It’s unknown which came first, her fall from a balcony—or a heart attack.  The body is “ephemeral” in Longevity.

Blossom’s Longevity is a remarkable book, indisputable evidence that prose poetry, too, will make you “feel physically as if the top of [your] head were taken off.”