What a Piece of Work

It’s good to be back!  I’ve been away visiting family and have had almost no internet time for almost two weeks!  How strange but good it was to unplug from the web and plugged in to the web of life.  I interviewed my 90-year-old father about his early life and every morning I walked for about an hour on the beach.  Many mornings, I saw people carefully monitoring the sea turtle nests that have made part of Daytona Beach Shores a nature preserve–even lights have to be shielded since baby turtles are wired to follow the moonlight into the sea after they hatch.

Spending time in nature (and talking to my old father about his early life, spent partly on a farm and on the shores of Lake Ontario), inspired me to wonder what it really means to be an individual, to be original.  My Buddhist friends would rush to say there is no permanently abiding self, that the sense-of-self is just an illusion of the mind.  Christians and friends in the Gurdjieff work would concur that we are all inextricably part of a greater unity, that we really cannot stand apart from the interconnected mystery of life.  I think originality flows from being in touch with this truth–with our common origins.

Not that this is a very original thing to say.  As Thelonius Monk once said, it’s not the notes you play, it’s how much you mean them.  There is no mistaking the sound of real authenticity.  I’ve been rereading Hamlet, inspired by listening to Harold Bloom’s lectures on Shakespeare (I do a lot of driving).  Bloom calls Hamlet “an absolute individual, a total original,” a man who was more real than anyone around him.  This seemed like entertaining overstatement until I began to study the play and realized how studded it is with profound insights and observations about what it means to be alive. “Hamlet carries with him an intense consciousness of death,” says Bloom.  His huge, penetrating consciousness grasps the fact that we are double creatures, part angel and part animal.  “What a piece of work is man!  How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty!  In form and moving how express and admirable!  In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!  The beauty of the world.  The paragon of animals.  And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”

These words wereused as lyrics in a song from the Broadway show “Hair.” They were sung by a character questioning who he was and what world he belonged in, the “straight” world of the war and striving or a counter-cultural world.  But they actually point to something more profound,vastly  less culture-bound (Else why would we still read them?).  What it means to be between two worlds, to be part of something vast yet limited, finite, bound by habits and desires?

22 thoughts on “What a Piece of Work

  1. Hi Everyone,

    I have always loved Shakespeare, and there is so to choose from across all his plays and wonderful works.

    You really have to wonder about who he was; he leaves me wondering this all the time. Shakespeare had to be, or has to be, one the oldest and wisest souls we have ever seen upon the earth.

    Wait, he speaks now …

    “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio.”

    Act 1, Scene 5, towards the end of the scene.

    Propose the oath, my lord.

    Never to speak of this that you have seen,
    Swear by my sword.

    [Beneath] Swear.

    Hic et ubique? then we’ll shift our ground.
    Come hither, gentlemen,
    And lay your hands again upon my sword:
    Never to speak of this that you have heard,
    Swear by my sword.

    [Beneath] Swear.

    Well said, old mole! canst work i’ the earth so fast?
    A worthy pioner! Once more remove, good friends.

    O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!

    And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
    There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
    Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

    How many times in your life have you heard this quote.

    Years ago my Father bought a copy of the complete works of Shakespeare for only $10, from an elderly lady in Lincoln, Kansas, of all places. Lincoln, is where he was born, look it up on Google earth and you’ll find it nearly in the center of the continental USA. It’s a very beautiful book, a lovely treasure, in mint condition, bound in soft black leather like an old fashion Bible, it even looks like a Bible. I’m sure she regrets letting go and losing the book to this day. I’m sure it was a loss to her eventually, a loss to grieve. My Father, I’m afraid to say, took advantage of the old girl.

    The only other book I have like in our library at home is the Bible, my Father’s, given to him when he was Methodist minister in the 1960s and involved in the Civil Rights movement. That book too is another treasure, and another story I fear.

    Both books, will now be passed on to someone in the family or to a close family friend, who will treasure them as I have treasured them. I too swear this by my sword, or fountain pen actually.

    I loved this post Tracy; I love Shakespeare. Here is a great link to his works online I found. Googling my life away. ;-)



  2. “they also resonated with another kind of remembering–a fleeting impression of what it means to be between two worlds, to be part of something vast yet limited, finite, bound by habits and desires.”

    This reminds me of the mobius strip, and a ring that I wear on my thumb (also a mobius)…We straddle both worlds, and as with the mobius, a circle that twists so that there is no “one side and another”, but is continuous.
    They intersect one another. That is what I think our life on this planet can be like…”with one foot in this world, and hopefully a realization of the “part of something vast.”

  3. “that we really cannot stand apart from the interconnected mystery of life. ”

    and why would we want to. it’s just that we would wish to be more voluntarily interested instead of like kids faces pressed against the window taken by the condensation of our breath. we will not suffer to be like the tiny turtles obeying an imperative moon.

  4. I wouldn’t want to be a baby turtle compelled to follow the moonlight, but I’m glad the there are baby turtles in the world to enjoy.

    I live in Saskatoon and we have a wonderful summer program every year called “Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan.” A huge red and white tent goes up on the banks of the South Saskatchewan River and a revolving company of actors perform two of Shakespeare’s plays on alternate days. You would think that a city as small as Saskatoon would run out of people to fill the audience, but you would be wrong. The performances are usually sold out. Of course, summer here is brief, but we know how to enjoy it. I’m going with my family to see “The Merry Wives of Windsor” on Friday night and I can’t wait. Some things (like baby turtles and William Shakespeare) you just wouldn’t want to live without.

  5. Harold Bloom says something so intriguing about Hamlet it made me see the play in a new light: “To be or not to be, that is the question–Whether ’tis nobler in the mnd to suffer/The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune/Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,/And by opposing, end them?”

    Bloom points out that Hamlet and Shakespeare were far too aware to seriously mean that a person could oppose the ocean of reality and win. And that’s exactly the pickle we humans are in–we can be with what is or fight against it, “for in that sleep of death what dreams may come” …no one knows what will come when we die.

    We can be with what is or fight, be averse, deluded. But life is not entirely under our control, and leads on to the unknown. It sounds almost Buddhist!

  6. and the question remains… which is nobler. that’s a funny word.

    it’s obvious that it’s nobler to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them. it’s the harder way. isn’t it? doesn’t that almost force one to self study and acquiring the means to do?

    “What poor an instrument/May do a noble deed!” (Shakespeare).

    but then, a noble element is inert. (but pure)

    i still don’t know.

  7. He also seems to point to the Four Noble Truths–that life is inherently difficult, a sea of troubles, and that we cannot really take arms against the sea.

    I don’t really think Shakespeare is a Buddhist, or that he suggests we humans are meant to be passive and just float in the sea oblivious.

    I think he (and Hamlet) had a heightened awareness of the way life is and the way we are–“I do believe you think what now you speak,/ But what we do determine oft we break./Purpose is but the slave to memory./Of violent birth, but poor validity,/Which now, like fruit unripe, sticks on the tree,/ But fall, unshaken, when they mellow be.”

    Shakespeare had such a vast consciousness and penetrating insight…it raises the question for me, what is a Way or a Path?

  8. Another way to put it, is can we bring our own wild, lived experience to the Path?

    I never thought I would find a link between sea turtles and William Shakespeare twice, let alone once, but there is one (and not just the sea)…we must allow our own nature, our own path to unfold, even as we seek a Path of Liberation and Self Knowledge.

    Not so easy…one tends to eclipse (overwhelm, repress?) the other.

  9. I’ve recently been struggling with some feelings of sadness and sorrow, and I’m rarely sad. It happens to the best of us though, but sadness does give birth to compassion.

    A part of any path is learning to simply let go of such emotions after recognizing where they come from, but to also realize that life is as much about forgivness, self forgivness in many cases, as it is about learning how to love and be compassionate human beings.

    One of the things I see going on now is a disconnection and distancing between religion, the humanities, and humanism. Conservative theological movements within Chritianity (anti-humanists) are very critical of humanism now, when once humanism and the humanities were seen as complementary rather than conflicting with religion. They still are for me, and it feels like they are throwing out the baby with the bath water.

    The work of Shakepeare has nearly always, pointed me back to our relationships with one another and even the divine, even nuturing these relationships.

    Did anyone catch the recent NPR story on Ann Rice leaving the church and organized religion? Here is a link.


    Here is another link I found, an essay written by Aldous Huxley, the last he ever wrote, dictated on his death bed.


    It starts with this quote…

    “Others abide our question. Thou art free.
    We ask and ask. Thou smilest and art still.”

    He then goes on to quote Macbeth, with these words.

    “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow
    Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
    To the last syllable of recorded time;
    And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
    The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
    Life’s but a walking shadow; a poor player.
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
    And then is heard no more: it is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing.”

    I’m afraid that today I have few answers, only question after question, but then, cannot all our questions lead somewhere good?

    Archibald MacLeish, the 20th Century American poet once wrote; “We have learned all the answers, all the answers. It is the questions we do not know.”

    I’m leaving the office early today, to attend a church stewardship conference at Camp Allen, the Texas Episcopal Diocese camp, about an hour outside of Houston. But, like Ann Rice, I too struggle in the relationship I have with organized religion. So far, I’m hanging in there, simply because I love the community it offers me. I see this blog as a community of people too, you are out there right? ;-)

    My apologies for this post being so long today. Maybe it was just that my heart needed to speak to other hearts like it today, kindred spirits all.

    Where would be be without the gift of art, the humanities, good literature, and a host of friends from Parabola: Tradition, Myth, and the Search for Meaning.


  10. Please excuse one final note, I learned last weekend that my good friend Julia, who lives in Tucson, AZ, was struggling with depression. We have often taught together Buddhist and Christian meditation classes. So, I wanted to give her something special to hold onto, since I couldn’t reach out to give a one-on-one hug. This is the poem I sent her on Sunday.


  11. Hi Ron: Thank you for your beautiful post. I will definitely check out the links. I was fascinated with Rice’s return to the church. We do want to make Parabola a place where seekers can meet and question deeply. Coincidentally, Hamlet is a play in which questioning and questions come up again and again. Reading it this time, I was struck by how sad and death-aware it is–yet how vivid and alive it is at the same time. Hamlet is in a state of question. At the end of his lectures on the play, Bloom concludes that he is the greatest tragic hero in all of Shakespeare because he is so aware of the nature of reality and the human predicament. Bloom said it is as if Shakespeare intentionally put him in the wrong play, gave this aware man an act of revenge instead of a great cosmological play (and mission). He said Hamlet’s refusal to act can almost be seen as an act of rebellion against the low task he was given. This strikes me as very poignant–an universal. Who hasn’t felt as if they were in the wrong story, the wrong place, and given work to do that is much smaller than what they secretly suspect they might accomplish? Who doesn’t want to touch a greater meaning…and yet we get carried away day after day with tasks and chores and sometimes situations that just feel very wrong. We yearn for clarity and a sense of connection with others and with a greater purpose.

    I hope your spirits have lifted by now. May you be happy and peaceful.

    1. Yes, I’m doing much better this week Tracy. Just way too many things at the office to juggle, work is good though, along with a pay check. Thanks – Ron ;-)

  12. When one’s own path-seeking, truth-seeking begets children who do the same thing and ask their mother: “What’s the point of it all?” — well, let’s just say another layer of complication gets added. My daughters were little existentialists long before I was ready for it. Fortunately, loving them has convinced me that love really can be enough, most of the time, even though saying so can sound terribly corny.

  13. I certainly found this to be true as a mother, Cathrin. It was and is the best I can give my daughter. I could not give her answers to ultimate questions–they were my answers and not even that, they were words, formulations that stood for a time.

    Love is the last word.

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