Ed Brush was my high school sophomore English teacher.
Mr. Shakespeare we called him because he made Shakespeare relevant to our hormone-confused lives. Heroes had fatal flaws that brought them down. Villains were blinded by hatred, revenge, rage. We could identify with both hero and villain.
He taught us all equally. That is, from jocks to those college-bound to those determined to flunk out, he assumed Shakespeare’s words would awaken something in us. And he succeeded.
“William Shakespeare told human beings why we are the way we are emotionally and spiritually,” Ed would later write.
Shakespeare wrote King Lear while he was isolated to avoid getting the plague. Or so goes the story currently being spun. I don’t know and don’t care if it is biographically true, for its emotional truth stirred me in light of our current reality.
And emotional truth is what Shakespeare revealed.
How, I ask myself, would Shakespeare write of a character such as Donald Trump, who, like the monarchs of his time (Trump has even begun referring to himself with the royal plural) had the power of death over life.
But I come up short.
For he is his taking every crisis as an opportunity to inflict or threaten to inflict cruelty and suffering on others. It is in that that he sees his power. And he relishes in that power.
How does a human become that? And how did that become our national character?
When a blind Gloucester finds Lear, his King, raging and manic on the stormy heath, he asks to kiss his hand. Lear replies,
“Let me wipe it first. It smells of mortality.”
Would that Trump could have that stormy-heath moment. It is hard to imagine. And so it is hard to form a story around him—how the humanity in him can be revealed.
So I go back to how does a human become that and how did his story become our national story?
Everything Midas touches turns to gold goes the myth. But what is often left out of the myth is how it ends. As his daughter rushes towards him he cries out to her to stop. But her love for him prevails and so she embraces him and his touch turns her into a gold statue. She dies.
That is what happens when we think gold gives us power. That gold is the power—that it makes us immune from mortality. We kill love.
I’m not even sure where I’m going with this but I woke this morning with fear permeating my workshop. What if, I wondered, there is no one left to hear our stories? Should I still tell the stories I see, hear, feel?
Then I remembered Faulkner’s words. Bert Fraser, my high school freshman English teacher, and later my Senior English Honors teacher, introduced me to his Nobel Prize speech. The year was 1967, seventeen years after they were delivered, when fear of nuclear annihilation hung heavy in the air.
Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.
He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.
Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.
I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.
I don’t know that I believe or need to believe that mankind will prevail. When we cry “Save the earth,” we really mean save mankind. But the earth will survive regardless of what happens to us.
Yet I still feel the need to save humanity, or at least my own, from cynicism. It is our mortality, ourselves that exist within a parenthesis of a much longer story, that will save us from our cynicism. For it is our mortality that connects us to the living world. And what we do can make a difference one way or the other even if it is only in the expanse of our own puny lifetimes.
How do we rid ourselves of this self-installed King? This Midas who would even turn his daughter into a statue of gold to shield him from his mortality?
I don’t know.
Stories venerating wealth and power have brought us to this moment. In the background stories of courage, compassion, and sacrifice seem to be surfacing as we wait for an outcome. One hopes that it is those stories that will prevail.
So I feel compelled to be to be one puny voice still talking, banish fear from my workshop, and carry on.
Note: Faulkner is sometimes referred to as the American Shakespeare.