Hamlet, the Old Lady, and the Fly

I’m tempted to say that the tricky thing about changing your life is the feedback between our circumstances, our social situations, and our psychic states.

This complexity is multiplied by the fact that we may do ourselves more harm than good. Physician induced disease is a real thing, on every level.

We see it in the nature of civilization itself. We solve one problem, like the fact that it’s cold and dark at night, only to create a host of other ones. Better the devil you know, as the old saying goes.

The whole thing is like that song about the old woman who swallows a fly, and then proceeds to swallow a host of other animals as each cure leads to an even worse disease.

So, what is the original fly in the ointment? According to the song, and I think we can regard this song as a good authority on the topic, the original fly is death itself. The key lyric, repeated over and over, gives it away: I guess she’ll die.

Of course there’s no reason a fly should prove fatal. Thing is – brace yourself – that fly is not a real fly. *It’s a poetic device*, a conceit. It’s just a way of setting up the fact that the old woman will die.

In fact, the old woman isn’t real either! She’s an image of mortality. That we so readily accept that a fly could be fatal is a testament to how well-designed of an image she is.

Such is the subtle genius of the songwriter, the original narrator, and an interesting distinction between oral and literate cultures. Oral cultures saved their knowledge in songs, because songs function as mnemonic devices.

Sing, Muse! Of the anger of Achilles…

One major problem with the super-profusion of narrative structures we live amongst, is the degradation of the art. In fact, one of my primary anxieties as a writer of things is the fear that I am degrading the art in my own attempts to practice it.

This is complicated by the fact that we look to our success in the minds of others as if this were an accurate judge of the case. I’m here to tell you that it’s not, because otherwise the Iliad would be far more popular than Game of Thrones.

Of course, I am myself more apt to turn on the screen than crack open the book. Back in 6th grade, that wasn’t true. Back then, I read the Iliad, even though it was over my head. I used to read over my head all the time, and by that I both deeply confused myself and deeply grew.

At some point I encountered Socrates, and the disturbing proposition that writing was not an apt means for transmitting understanding, but only the appearance of familiarity with such. Real knowledge was written in the heart, as by experience, or a genuine master… experience itself being, in the Socratic view, the ultimate master.

Yes, Friends, there is a direct line between Socrates, Mohammed, and George Washington, uniting them as co-religionists in a belief that the Great Disposer of Events was a conscious being. In fact, not just a conscious being, but THE CONSCIOUS BEING, both transcendent of the World and imminent within it.

As Socrates put it, quoting the doctrine he received from the initiates of Eleusis: Man is a prisoner who must not open the door and flee, because he is under the care of the god. Thus, the “prohibition against self-slaughter” that Hamlet agonizes over has as its premise and corollary a belief in the reality of said CONSCIOUS BEING. He only considers suicide insofar as he questions whether or not there is such a BEING, and so, whether there even is a spiritual dimension. It’s the same question Socrates is pushed to engage by his disciples as he they all wait for the executioner to bring him the hemlock he has been condemned to drink.

Hamlet only considers suicide insofar as he questions whether there is a spiritual domain, wherein the soul survives. We accept that he questions this as he does, because we question it as we do. It makes less sense when we remember that Hamlet has literally held a conversation with his father’s ghost – a sight seen not only by himself, but three of his fellows. Remembering that, it’s hard to understand how he refers to death as that “undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns.”

How is he able to conclude that we are cowards for obeying the prohibition against self-slaughter, given the fact that he knows for a certain fact that the other world is real, and we continue our existence in it? How to reconcile this contradiction in character?

We might say that like the old woman, Hamlet too isn’t real, and isn’t therefore a character of anything but the will of the author’s needs to construct a story for an audience. Deeper, though, perhaps this contradiction of agnostic doubt and personal knowing describes a real condition. We believe in Hamlet like we believe in the old woman, because each is the image of a real thing.

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