Taking the measure of Shakespeare

Justice and mercy – concepts which Shakespeare simply takes in his stride. His characters take up the arguments: Shakespeare himself stood above the fray. A way of avoiding arrest for sedition? ‘No, that’s not what I believe,’ he might have said, ‘that’s Angelo, or the Duke, or Isabella.’

They are concepts which weave their way through Measure for Measure, which I’ve recently read for the first time. The title refers to a passage in Matthew’s gospel: ‘…and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.’

For the story in outline – read on.

Angelo, left in charge by the Duke, who isn’t too keen on worldly affairs (‘I love the people,/But do not like to stage me to their eyes…’ – a reticence many in our time could usefully copy), sentences Claudio to death for the offence of – put simply – sex before marriage. Is this justice?

At the time he’s arrested Claudio accepts his guilt – and it seems, his fate: ‘Our natures do pursue,/Like rats that do ravin down their proper bane,/ A thirsty evil, and when we drink we die.’

The Duke likewise supports the rule of law and its stern implementation:

‘Now as fond fathers,/having bound up the threatening twigs of birch,/Only to stick it in their children’s sight/For terror, not to use, in time the rod/Becomes more mocked than feared: so our decrees/Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead,/ and Liberty plucks justice by the nose,/The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart/Goes all decorum.’

Now, quite apart, from anything else, the language is extraordinary. As a fond father I never threatened with twigs of birch, but I did try and ensure that the baby didn’t beat the nurse – or the dad. I love the half-rhyme of ‘nose’ and ‘nurse’. Stating the supremely obvious, Shakespeare was one hell of a poet.

I won’t recount the full story. But Claudio has a beautiful sister, Isabella, a novice nun, no less. Isabella pleads for mercy for her brother – pleas rejected by Angelo – in language reminiscent of Portia in the Merchant of Venice. Compare:

(Isabella) ‘…Well, believe this,/No ceremony that to great ones ‘longs, /Not the king’s crown, nor the deputed sword, /The marshal’s truncheon, nor the judge’s robe, /Become them with one half so good a grace /As mercy does.’

(Portia) ‘The quality of mercy is not strain’d,/It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven/Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;/It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:/’Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes/The throned monarch better than his crown;/His sceptre shows the force of temporal power…’

But then Angelo suggests a cruel bargain. He promises to free Claudio – if Isabella will sleep with him. Back to the Bible, and seeing the mote in another’s eye and not the beam in your own. (I grew up with metaphors such as this – but I doubt if my children would understand…)

The Duke has wisely kept Angelo under surveillance, and Angelo is tricked into sleeping with his ex-fiancee, Mariana, who he has cast aside, while thinking it’s Isabella – a very Shakespearian stratagem. (Always check who you’re sleeping with – that might be the warning here!)

There’s more, but it’s enough to remark how Shakespeare supports authority, but with a light touch – reminding us of the hypocrisy which too often (I was going to say always, but maybe we should let the Duke off – he seems an all-round good guy) goes hand-in-hand with authority.

Shakespeare never preaches – he leaves that to his characters. Sexual desire is part and parcel of life, and the rough, and the tumble, and the illicit and the licit, it’s all of a piece, all part of his story. To take out sexual desire would be ‘to geld and spay all the youth of the city’ (in Lucio’s words).

I could find all sorts of parallels with our own time. We have the current case of the Culture Secretary, and his affair with a hooker, and the press of which he’s in charge of regulating claiming that they didn’t report the story before because it wasn’t in the public interest. Hypocritical tosh of the highest order.

But that’s enough – let Shakespeare speak for himself. He is the world in microcosm, and even though he was writing four centuries ago the characters who walked the stages of the Globe or the Swan still walk our streets and share our beds today.

 

Militant atheism and the spiritual path

Now that is quite a a title for a post…

I’ve just finished reading Sam Harris’s Waking Up – subtitle ‘searching for spirituality without religion’. When he claimed Chris Hitchens as a friend, I was instantly worried. And then I had the usual stuff about religions being mutually incompatible so no-one can possibly believe that ‘all religions are the same’. Well, we don’t believe they’re all the same – but we do find an underlying unity. He should have asked us first – but he hares off on the hackneyed ‘violence of religion’ tack, and even finds a Zen story where a disciple hacks a finger off – and then is suddenly enlightened.

The sad thing is that Harris has gained some kind of spiritual understanding over many years as a seeker and meditator, and he’s especially keen on, and good at describing, Dzogchen Buddhism (‘focusing on the intrinsic selflessness of awareness’). But he fails completely to recognise that it’s a specifically religious search for understanding in this life that led to the revelations that he now, as a militant atheist, has the benefit of.

And then we have the following on drugs: ‘The power of psychedelics is that they often reveal in a few hours depths of awe and understanding that can otherwise elude us for a lifetime.’ Having been down that route, and experienced the ecstasy, I know that selflessness – the experience of non-self, anatta – and drug-induced ecstasy are two very different things. The path – I almost want to say ‘true path’, but that really does sound too religious! – is step-by-step, unfolding, learning, consolidating – I say learning, but it’s not learning in the sense of acquiring knowledge – it is simply that awareness that opens up beyond self. And where you find a differently kind of joy and peace from anything you’ve experienced before.

And a final grumble – no, more than a grumble. This is serious stuff. Reading a review of John Bew’s book, Realpolitik: A History (premise – pragmatism dictates that the overtly and obviously moral route can’t always be the one to follow – politics has sometimes to be about compromise), there’s a reference to Barack Obama drawing on the wisdom of the theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. Obama has tried to articulate a liberal realist world view – avoiding misconceived adventures on the one hand and isolation on the other…

Why is that relevant to Sam Harris’s book? Because Harris and his like go on about the evils of religion but overlook that it’s not violence but compassion that drives religion. And that the spiritual without compassion is selfish and not selfless. Compassion has to be at the heart of politics, and I believe that Obama has tried to do just that, and his successes and failures are indicative of how hard it is to follow that path in today’s world – and yet how essential it is to try.

Religion when taken over by the power-brokers of the world for their own ends has caused many a disaster. But religion allied to compassion, in the minds of a follower, disciple or believer (however you wish to describe yourself), has been the ultimate force for good in the world. (Now that I admit is a challenging statement – and meant to be such!)

I heard Steven Pinker speak about his then new book, Better Angels Of Our Nature, a year of two back. It’s predicated (and brilliantly argued) on the role of violence in human history – how over centuries and millennia we’ve created social and political structures to contain that violence, allowing the creation of stable, or relatively stable, societies and government. (And how violence continues to decline, even allowing for two world wars and many other horrific events.)

Pinker argues that the primacy of reason and enlightenment values from the 18th century onwards allowed empathetic values, not least compassion, to find expression. The pattern of history for me is very different – violence and compassion have existed side by side throughout recorded history – compassion is hardly a recent phenomena, and it’s in the exercise of that compassion that we as human beings have found our greatest fulfilment.

Compassion and religion have always been closely interconnected. And if you’re a militant atheist, that poses a problem.

My recommendation to Sam Harris would be – get off your podium, stop preaching, and get out there in the world. And if you do, you’ll find yourself working alongside some wonderful people – of all faiths, and none, including humanists. We all work together. We just don’t call each other names.

Compassion – Zen Master Dogen and the Pope take on the world

Zen Master Dogen (writing in Japan, in the 13th century) has been a favourite of mine since I first came across him, maybe ten years ago. Discussing compassion he writes:

Even when you are clearly correct and others are mistaken, it is harmful to try and argue and defeat them. On the other hand if you admit fault when you are right then you are a coward. It is best to step back, neither trying to correct others nor conceding to mistaken views. If you don’t react competitively and let go of the conflict , others will also let go of it without harbouring ill will. 

Don’t act competitively – that may seem hard, but the benefits can be extraordinary.

You make the community’s heart your heart and their thought your way of thought. You make the parental heart your heart and the heart of children your heart. If you practise in this way you will be like a boat with a rudder on a wide river, or like rain in a time of drought.  

There are countless other contributions on the subject down the centuries. In recent years there’s been Marshall Rosenberg’s book, Non-violent Communication, and the worldwide movement that it’s inspired. And Karen Armstrong’s Charter for Compassion – which I’ve signed up to.

And as of today – there’s the Pope’s comment about the wall that Trump would build along the Mexican border: “a person who thinks only about building walls… and not of building bridges, is not Christian.” And one Republican response, one Jerry Fulwell Jnr: “Jesus never intended to give instructions to political leaders on how to run a country.”

From that we deduce that compassion isn’t easy. In our private lives we may find that compassion can indeed be like a boat with a rudder on a wide river. But in public – the Pope’s is a simple statement, and the only comment a Christian could make. Build bridges don’t put up walls. (Israel has not understood this – to its long-term cost.)

Religious leaders do best to keep out of politics – but when there are egregious failures of morality at a high level – when the ordinary norms are behaviour are compromised – they have to speak out, and this is such a time.

‘Make America great again,” is Trump’s lunatic war cry. America was great and can still be great if it realises that it won its previous greatness by working with and supporting countries and communities and being part of alliances round the world. Not by waving a big stick.

This is a vast subject, and best to leave it here for now. But there’s a danger that populism can shift a country dangerously right, or indeed left. And ‘stepping back’, or ‘turning the other cheek’, won’t always be the right action.

As indeed Zen Master Dogen recognises. “…if you admit fault when you are right then you are a coward.” Or if you stay silent.

Obama chops Trump down

Lovely to see – to hear – Obama chopping Trump down. Being president is not about a being a talk show host, about marketing, about publicity, it’s about making difficult decisions, and some are unpopular, some will hurt people, and being well-briefed in your dealings with other world leaders – they too have ‘their own crowds back home’. That last point I especially liked – you, Donald, are not alone in this world.

There’s a piece in the Economist on American conservative talk radio, hosted by the semi-crazed (Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck) who somehow in the rarefied air of the prairies don’t just to get a hearing but strike a few big chords – or a few bum notes. If bum notes are all you hear, would you recognise a chord?

Does it give joy to Trump to be supported by such people – how much of a conscious game is he playing with them – feeding them pap?

Ted Cruz is no better, but while you feel that for Trump it is a big game, and a big ego, for Ted Cruz it is deadly, evangelically serious. He also feeds the talk shows with great material. The trouble is – he believes it all, and he can express himself with a degree of coherence. And he is so sure he’s right that compromise and balance, which is what the American constitution requires, gets shown the door. And America becomes ungovernable, as it halfway is now.

What also bugs me is Cruz’s call on the Bible, and Jesus, to support him. He sure as hell – almost literally – wouldn’t get close to the pearly gates. America has always been too good – the prairies again – at creating its own religions.

Only one small pleasure in all this – a little bit of humour – Fox News almost the good guys. They do at least have a small idea that politics is about governing – and governing, as John Kasich the best of the Republican contenders has made clear, is a serious matter, about results and balanced budgets and not public platforms.

The UK is – to use totally the wrong expression – a different ballgame. But we also have the same populist right-wing nonsense to deal with and it’s big in the media – thank God we’re spared talk shows. But we do, sadly, have the Mail.

Obama mentions that one aspect of government is looking out for the underdog – ‘standing up for people who are vulnerable and don’t have some powerful political constituency’. And that is the ultimate litmus test of any politics.

To quote Bob Dylan’s Chimes of Freedom, which I’ve done before:

Tolling for the aching ones whose wounds cannot be nursed/ For the countless confused, accused, misused, strung-out ones an’ worse/ An’ for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe/ An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing

Kids Company – where lies truth?

I’ve read some pretty unpleasant things in the press about Kids Company, so I watched Lynn Alleway’s film based on interviews with Camila Batmanghelidjh (shown on the BBC last Wednesday) with great interest. While I’ve had no connections with the charity I’ve had the sense that it was doing something remarkable, and the way sections of the press turned on her and the charity last summer left me with grave misgivings. Accusations of failures to investigate physical and sexual abuse, in additional to claims of financial incompetence, finally brought charity down: the police have no found no evidence to support the accusations relating to abuse, but much much too late.

The film interviews sympathetically, but also shows how personal and inconsistent and extravagant many of the charity’s activities were, and Alleway concludes (with sadness) that Batmanghelidjh was living in a world of her own.

But – and I’ll quote the Guardian review of the film here – ‘however bonkers and badly run Kids Company was, it’s hard not to admire and support the idea behind it: to bring the love of a family to troubled lives. Nor is Camila’s motivation in question – she’s trying to do the right thing by the kids. And on an individual level it works, it can change lives for the better.’

The love of a family.

No other charity has attempted anything in this scale, or achieved so much – or been so profligate. Could Alan Yentob as chair of the trustees have kept her in check – did he want to, being aware of the good the charity was doing? And what are we left with, now that it’s gone? The loyalty and enthusiasm of the Kids Company staff were very evident from the film.

On the other hand – what the Kids Company was faced with, from the more callous sections of the press, is evident from the Telegraph  review of Lynn Alleway’s film:

‘Those who bring succour to the needy are deserving of society’s gratitude. None have gobbled up more of their fill than Camila Batmanghelidjh, the founder of Kids Company. Public knowledge of her love-spreading charity was greatly enhanced by a documentary made by Lynn Alleway 10 years ago. So when a vastly expanded Kids Company started to run out of money last year, Batmanghelidjh invited Alleway back to watch the fur fly from the inside….Alleway’s wasn’t especially keen to expose her subject as paranoid, narcissistic, belligerent, manipulative, self-pitying, evasive, irresponsible and needy. But Batmanghelidjh didn’t give her much other material to work with.’

And there’s much more in this vein. My disdain for this kind of review, this kind of reporting, is absolute.

There’s a factual note at the bottom of the review – the charity’s total income 2013:  £8,104,012; the number of children the charity said it was supporting at the time of its closure: 34,000.

34,000. Even if overstated, even its a significantly smaller number, that’s a lot of children being helped, and what has happened to them since then? That’s another story.

Maybe the Telegraph would like to report on this – and try and report accurately and honestly for a change.

Room – the movie 

Thoughts on the movie, Room, which my daughter Rozi and I saw last Monday. Though in itself an extraordinary story there are connections with ordinary childhoods, and that’s what I want to explore here.

Room focuses on a mother, Joy, abducted and kept prisoner for seven years, and the boy, Jack, she gave birth to two years into her captivity – the father being her captor. They’re incarcerated in a garden shed, with a skylight, and a TV, and this is the only world the boy knows, until aged 5, his mother explains (quite a challenge) to him that the world he sees on TV is actually (cartoons accepted) the real world. And she plans an escape. I’ll say no more about the plot.

There’s an intensity about the movie, which needs to be considered apart from the book on which it’s based: the movie can’t cover all the book’s elements or subtleties. It focuses on mother and child, and it’s the strength of their relationship which left an indelible impression on me. Joy gives him her total attention, total loyalty, and while in the everyday world parent-child relationships can so easily be inadequate or fractured, in this case Jack grows up, over his first five years, remarkably secure, and with a strong sense of his own identity. It has to be reinterpreted once he learns that there is a real world out there, and of course when he finds himself actually in that world.

But there is an identity on which he can build – and that is the subject of the second half of the movie.

I remember reading a few years ago about the work of paediatrician and psychotherapist Donald Winnicott, and his  concept of the ‘holding environment’.  And it all seems very relevant.

Winnicott argued that the ‘mother’s technique of holding, of bathing, of feeding, everything she did for the baby, added up to the child’s first idea of the mother’, as well as fostering the ability to experience the body as the place wherein the  child – and the adult – securely lives. The capacity for being – the ability to feel genuinely alive inside, which Winnicott saw as essential to the maintenance of a true self – is fostered by the practice of childhood play. (Quotes courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Joy provides so much of what Jack needs, there is a real sense of ‘holding’, and gives him security, and she encourages play – there’s a lot of play in the early scenes of the movie: children can conjure remarkable world of play out of very little. They don’t need Toys R Us or Hamleys.

As for the father – the movie hardly touches on that. Joy rejects ‘Old Nick’ as the ’emotional’ father of the child. But how Jack connects to men and male role models –  that’s another story, and hardly touched on in the movie.

A movie, far more than most, to make you think.

The press and the bedroom

In an interview which focuses on where to locate parliament during the coming major refurbishment, the speaker (of the House of Commons), John Bercow, also took in other subjects, including the tabloid press, in a way that politicians, constrained by party, rarely do.

Would that more politicians felt able to speak truth to the nation.

He denounced much of the UK tabloid press as what he called the ‘more downmarket, low-grade, fifth-rate scribblers on newspapers – if they could be called such – that might be thought to be racist, sexist, bigoted, homophobic, comic cartoon strips’.

Right on! Few in the media will dare to repeat or report this, and yet it’s the way so many of us feel.

Another big cheer this week followed the Court of Appeal ruling that the so-called bedroom tax ‘discriminates against a domestic violence victim and the family of a disabled teenager’. The bedroom tax euphemistically called by the government the ‘spare room subsidy’ is one of those pernicious pieces of legislation which fails to take into account the realities of ordinary life – the lives of ordinary people. Reduces them to statistics.

Cameron’s comment that it is ‘unfair to subsidise spare rooms in the social sector if we don’t subsidise them in the private sector’, entirely misses its damaging effects. No spare room means no family or friends to stay, no room for emergency, no place to escape. What happens in the private sector is an irrelevance. The iniquity of opposing a Mansion Tax while supporting a bedroom tax, where the occupant in the one case by definition has resources and the other doesn’t, is self-evident.

Policy-makers have to mix with the real world, and have to remember as I’ve argued many times that if your policy fails the basic test of compassion, then you should scrap it.