What a Piece of Work
August 3, 2010 § 22 Comments
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?