Religion – not quite the Opiate of Utopia

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Tomorrow is the first of our group presentations, and I don’t want to scoop the gang, but I’m going to tell you a little about Thomas More, and make a point that I hope will lead to discussion. Thomas More was a lawyer, a humanist, and the Chancellor of England.  He wrote Utopia in 1516, as a satiric text, perhaps in response to Desiderius Erasmus’ 1511 satire, In Praise of Folly.  Utopia was published in  1516, before he became one of England’s most prominent statesmen in 1529.  If you’re interested in exploring Utopia a little more, I suggest looking at the British Library’s webpage – but you can’t use it in your essays.  In 1534, Henry VIII, eagerly seeking to invalidate his marriage to Catherine of Aaragon, passed the Act of Supremacy, which recognized the Tudor monarch as the head of the Church of England, enabling him to control ecclesiastical England, and enrich himself with the wealth of the monasteries. More was a devout Catholic, who repeatedly refused to sign the act, unlike many hight-standing clerics of England.  His defiance infuriated Henry, causing a rift between the two men, and eventually, Henry was pushed to assert his power, and had More executed for high treason, and on 6th July, 1535, he went to the scaffold, where he lost his head.

The place of religion in Utopia is then perhaps what we might then expect from such a principled and devout Catholic, even if it may seem contradictory to much of what we read, especially as we put on our little, grey, uniform, Marxist hats. More suggests repeatedly that religious worship is a natural state of humanity, that is something that More suggests the wisest of Utopians naturally incline towards.  In particular, they gravitate towards one diety, telling us that  “the greater and wiser sort of them worship none of these, but adore one eternal, invisible, infinite, and incomprehensible Deity; as a being that is far above all our apprehensions, that is spread over the whole universe” (More).  Conveniently enough, when Hythloday and his men arrive at Utopia, bearing the gospel, this is the exact interpretation that the Utopians were looking for, and they hopped on board.  Clearly, given the personal history of More, we would be foolish not to take his attitude towards “natural” religion at face value, even as we recognize how this might complicate our desire to run full-tilt into a Marxist analysis.  The passionate Christian, More goes on to tell us, was rightly arrested, not for practicing his faith, but for inflaming the people. As you proceed through Utopia, I hope you will notice such irregularities in Hythloday’s narrative, and think carefully about why they exist.  It’s tempting to move through Utopia at speed, because it is an easy, and terrific read, but More wants you to trip up on the details, and to stop and think them through carefully.

Shakespeare and the Dialectic of Enlightenment

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Ladies and gentlemen, the blog is back.

So, this semester is not going to be strictly Shakespearean, but they all stole from each other, left, right, and centre, so arguably, I’m always talking about Shakespeare.  On some level.  That’s my defense, and I’m sticking with it.

This semester will be looking at early modern texts through the critical lens of Marxism.  Marxism is just as relevant now as it was in 1848 when Marx and Engels popped out the manifesto.  The early modern period is crucial to Marxism, as it was really between in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that we see the European shift towards a capitalist economy.  Land-based economics slid into decline as passages east opened up, and luxury consumer goods began to infiltrate the marketplace, giving rise to a city based economy, that valued cold, hard cash over the economic value of land.  Naturally, the changes that this new economic landscape wrought – immigration, urban over-population, nouveau riche, increased unemployment – all filter their way into the literature of the period, manifesting themselves explicitly in texts such as Utopia, or the brilliantly titled usury play, The Hog Hath Lost Its Pearl, and can be found less overtly so in texts such as King Lear.

This week, we’re reading from The Dialectic of Enlightenment, a text that proposes that “under monopoly, all mass culture is identical, and the lines of its artificial framework begin to show through” (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1111).  What they essentially argue is that mass culture (or low culture, in a high/low binary created by the creators of mass entertainment) is a sublimating fantasy that is designed to echo real life in a kind of dream state, that is marked not only by its idealism, but by its unattainability.  And they also really seem to hate jazz, which is a bit of a bummer for me, who was listening to the Squirrel Nut Zippers about an hour ago.  Style is a set of perimeters, by which the status quo is maintained, and tragedy is designed to placate the masses about the futility of standing up to the system – if you read Brecht or Artaud (and you should), you know where this is going.

This time around, my favorite quote is “style represents a promise in every work of art” (1115).  The promise offered through style is the generality, and the successful fusion of the idea of a truth with conventional social bonds.  Obviously, I think we can see how tragedy is the natural progression of this conversation.  I believe that it was Walter Benjamin who argued that every great work of art either dissolves, or creates a genre, leading us to Shakespeare.  It’s hard to think of Shakespeare as radical, considering he’s *the* canonical writer, but bear with me.  Shakespeare survives over someone like Beaumont and Fletcher (sorry, B&F fans), because the texts shatter genre, and in doing so, break with style.  The act of writing becomes a political gesture when we genuinely root for Macbeth, don’t believe Katherine’s conversion or think about Hamlet’s experience as he processes the inescapability of the role that will destroy him.  Whether it is Bertram’s brutal rejection of Helena, Hero’s humiliation at the altar, or the loss of Mamillius, Shakespeare challenges the otherwise easy allocation of pity, or admiration, demanding that we recognize the price paid for social assimilation.

As someone whose career it is to watch Shakespeare, revisiting these theories reminds me that I want more.  The loss of innocence that occurs with the first reading of Lear is an electrifying sensation, and one that is exhausting, confusing, and exhilarating.  Shakespeare continues to be all of these things, and I hope that as the class progresses, we can find new ways of radicalizing old texts.  It’s time.