Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Go Deep?

We’ve covered this ground before, but as I listen to Bill Bryson’s “History of Everything” book an analogy occurred to me that I wanted to get down.

You can’t ever really fully “get” Shakespeare.  The man’s just not around anymore, and he left few clues as to what he was really up to.  Even if he was still with us and could answer our questions, we’d still be limited by the simple and unfortunate fact that we cannot crawl in his brain and be him for a little while (though how much we might wish to be!)

There’ve been other analogies – I like the line attributed to Peter Brooks about “splitting the atom and unleashing the infinite energy”.  But right now I’m thinking about swimming in the ocean.  Go deep.  Deeper.  While it’s not technically infinite, it’s pretty damned close enough.  We’re about as near to understanding the deepest part of the ocean as we are to understanding how Shakespeare felt about his wife and kids. We may think we know, we may have evidence on which to base reasonable guesses, but do we know? Do we have first hand experience? No, not even close.

So, here’s my question.  On the one end of the spectrum you’ve got oceanographers who have seen more of the oceanic depths than most mere mortals, and on the other you could occasionally find somebody who’s never actually seen or touched an ocean.  And you’ve got a bunch of people somewhere in the middle.  Likewise, with Shakespeare, you’ve got figures who’ve spent their lives combing over every last smudge and speck of every letter of every Folio, and you’ve got people who maybe have some general concept of the word Shakespeare but wouldn’t know their Hamlet from Green Eggs and Ham.

Where would you rather have people be?

Most regular people with no interest in studying marine biology can enjoy a dip in the ocean.  They may even like to swim with the sting rays or take in some scuba diving.  And at every turn there could be a professional who has done more, deeper, saying “No, you fool, you’ve barely scratched the surface, you have no idea what you’re missing! You just don’t get it!”

Most regular people are also not Shakespeare academics, or theatre folk.  But they can still take in a play, maybe read them for fun, maybe quote the man from time to time.  And there can always be the Shakespearean equivalent of the oceanographer turning his nose up, sighing and saying, “No, you fool, you’ve barely scratched the surface, you have no idea what you’re missing! You just don’t get it!”

You’re down there in the deep end, hanging out, checking out the wonders that only you can see.  Perhaps it is your job, and you’ve got the benefit of having someone pay you to get better and go deeper.  Or maybe you’re self taught.  Either way, what would you rather have? One or two others down there with you who equally “get” it? Or would you rather swim back up toward the more shallow end and entice more people to get into the water in the first place?

In a way it is a very specific, somewhat selfish question – what would you prefer.  But it’s also got a broader application.  In a given situation where there is some sort of “finish line”, is it better for a small group to cross the finish line, or for a much larger group to all move closer to the line?  What if we were talking about something like grade point average?  I’m tempted to bust out the Star Trek  reference (“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”), but I’m trying very hard not to make it a question of “outweigh” because that implies some sort of failure of the smaller group, which I don’t think is the case here.

(I’ve also just realized, while writing this, that I caught a piece of the movie “A Beautiful Mind” on television late the other night, and I’m beginning to wonder if I’m directly channeling John Nash’s revision of Adam Smith …)

Anyway, that’s enough of that.  Feel free to dig in and tear apart.


P.S. – I think regular readers know my answer.  I’ll never be a “deep” Shakespeare guy, and even if somebody told me tomorrow that I could support myself doing nothing but this I suspect that I’d still be right about on the same level I’ve always been.  I don’t even love having the deep discussions, and admit freely that people lose me quickly.  Given the choice, I’ll take a world where in any given crowd somebody could come up with a Shakespeare reference, and have an equal chance that the rest of the crowd actually *gets* it.


JM said...

I don't know if I quite get the analogy.

Unlike bookstores, there are very few opportunities for oceanographic exploration off of every other exit on I-95.
On the other hand, there is something of an ocean of opportunity right here on the net when it comes to becoming more aware about Shakespeare. So why would someone "choose" to remain "unknowing" given the opportunity to be otherwise?. It's not some sort of honor to do so. And believe it or not, you're pretty far from the wading end of the pool yourself, Duane.
I guess I don't get the point of the either-or choice you seem to think exists. Lots of people are swimming, if not "going deep", somewhere in the middle. There's lots of room for more. If someone doesn't understand something it's not a crime, neither is being wrong or unaware--and while you're wading in the shallow end, you can make them aware of what they don't know. ...Which is exactly, in my view, what you do sometimes.

Duane said...

Easy access to information does not translate to "Well then there's no excuse not to learn it", though. Those bookstores you point to have lots of books on lots of subjects, and any one of us is far from expert in most of them.

I don't think that it's an either-or choice. What I'm saying is, do those folks in the "deeper" ends accept and see value in coaxing people from the shallow end, or do you take more of a "If you're not gonna go all the way, don't bother at all" position?

I don't think I was suggesting an either-or position, but it's certainly a spectrum, wouldn't you agree? You can know nothing, or you can known a whole bunch, or somewhere in the middle. I think the ocean (or even swimming pool) analogy still holds - you're "deeper" than a bunch of others, so what do you do, hang out in the deep end, looking at those in the shallow and wondering "What's your problem, why don't you come out here so we can hang out?" Or do you go out to the shallow end and hang out with them up there, hoping to coax them a bit deeper?

Would you rather have a handful of people in the world who know all there is to know about your subject of choice, or would you rather have just about everybody know at least a little bit?

Lisa Ann said...

Here's a different analogy to try. Let's say you compare literary knowledge to technical knowlege about cars. You've got:

- People who drive a car every day, but could only maybe change their oil or a tire. (These compare to most readers, who recognize the odd Shakespeare quote, know the plots of a few plays, and have seen one or two performed.)

- Amateur car enthusiasts who read car magazines and can do minor-to-moderate repairs on their vehicles. (These are the readers who love Shakespeare, learn some about the time period, and pick up old vocab so they get the jokes. I'm in this category.)

- Engineers and mechanics who design cars and make them better. (These are the professional scholars. We don't all have to be like them, but without them, we wouln't be able to appreciate Shakespeare nearly as much. They do years hard work so we can quickly read the foot notes.)

So if you look at it that way, I'm glad there are scholars who pick Shakespeare apart, but there's nothing wrote with the rest of us being caual readers or amateur enthusaiasts. In fact, if everyone tried to become an expert, I think there would be too much over-analyzing and too little enjoying.

Duane said...

I think it's interesting, Lisa, that you suggest "over analyzing" is mutually exclusive with "enjoying", and might find some folks who want to take issue with that. :) After all, one person's "over" analyzing is another person's learning curve.

You also take the position of the casual follower who appreciates the experts. I didn't intend to set up sides like that.

Let me reduce it way down. Take a subject that you know a good deal about. Now say that you're among a crowd of people, and your subject comes up. Are you more comfortable with a crowd of people who know basically less than you, or basically more? Do you want to teach, or learn? I suppose we could argue for the size of the "we all know about the same" pool, but that's not as interesting, it's kind of a given that people are comfortable around peers. In this case, yes, I'm asking people to choose sides. :)

JM said...

Duane asks: "Do you want to teach or learn?"


Duane said...

Bah. Take a stand, pick one.

Once in a college sociology course I was designing a survey with my professor and asked, for a particular Likert item ("Strong disagree, agree, neutral, agree, strongly agree"), whether to use the 5 point scale or the 4 point one (which leaves out "neutral"). He said, "4 point for this one, because sometimes you want to make people make a choice."

The hypothetical cocktail party has separated itself like a junior high school dance, only this time on one side of the auditorium we have the big group of Shakespeare newbies who are talking about how awesome Leonardo DiCaprio was in the 1996 movie and how it would have been just that much cooler if Juliet woke up in time, and did anybody see Shutter Island yet, and that they heard something about Shakespeare being gay, except for the one dude who says that he heard somewhere that there really wasn't even a real person called Shakespeare. You pretty safely know much about the subject than just about everybody in this crowd, though one or two of them might throw you a reference from a history channel special that you hadn't seen yet.

On the other side of the room are the Gary Taylor and Harold Bloom types, the much smaller group, who are fighting with each other over, I dunno, Hand D or some other relatively esoteric bit of "depth" that the other group would be completely lost by. They are, in general, much more knowledgeable about the subject than you are. You can probably hang with them and follow along, but you'll certainly be learning more from them than they will from you.

You've just walked in. Which group do you go hang with?

You could continue to say "I stand in the middle at the punch bowl and talk to people as they come by" or "I go back and forth" or debate whether discussion of Hand D is really esoteric or deep, but if so we can just give up on this one and move on.

Everyone is right to say that we bounce back and forth, and I admittedly do it as well. The conversation here often gets beyond me and I try to follow along as best I can, but I will give up much quicker than if the roles were reversed, and I was explaining to others. I often tell people, once I sense that I'm on a roll, that "You've got me talking about Shakespeare now, so seriously, walk away or something because I won't stop. I'm serious."

So yes, we all want to both teach and learn, but given this one time choice between the two, which would you pick? I pick teach.

JM said...

The hypothetical situation you place me in (and there are lots of possible situations in varying degrees) makes my answer, in this particular case, easy. Personally (although relatively) speaking, I don't give a flying compositor about "Hand D", I would like to be able to hang out, occasionally, in the company of Messrs Bloom and Taylor. And maybe something would come up in that conversation which might cause either a revelation or an investigation on my part--something I hadn't thought of before. The question is: who knows? Possibly, around the fringes of the "esoterica", as you define it, there are practical and enlightening things to learn--THEN teach.

Relative to all of this, I think, have been my "learning" experiences as an actor. I've learned a lot more from being on stage with my betters than I have in other, opposite situations. And certainly a greater ability to teach has come from knowing that unless I'd like to be the broom with which they sweep the stage, I'd better buck up and "learn" something about how to better and more easily "tread the water" on the boards WITH my betters. I also learned to like the challenge, and it certainly made me better in ways that no "acting class" ever had a hope of doing. So academia isn't really the only place where the so-called deep esoterica lies.

I guess it comes down to a philosophical, rather than a simple black and white choice for me. And philosophically speaking, the more I learn, AND the more I teach,the more I I realize how much there is I don't know. No mere platitude--that's the truth.
A conversation between one of my former philosophy professors and your sociology professor would probably make for interesting listening. But if it came down to "winning" an argument about an absolutism like "having to choose", I think I know who the victor would be. Although I might be straying a bit, absolutism gets us into more trouble, by far, than it's worth--and it's how we can become easily controlled in our thinking, to our great detriment, by those who would insist on our making an unnecessary choice. Not by any means what I think you're doing here Duane, but think political parties for a moment as just one of many examples.

I'm not simply trying to be contrary; this hits me where I live. As I said, it's not, nor will it ever be, either-or for me. I'd be the floater at your party.

Sometimes, although it may hurt an awful lot, having the fencepost planted firmly "where the sun don't shine" is the best place to sit. It's where the view is clearest, most complete, and at its brightest, peripheral best. :-)

Craig said...

I just remember when I heard Bill Bryson say he was working on two books: one, a biography of Shakespeare; the other, a history of the universe. I thought, "That sounds about right for a sketch of human knowledge. Volume One: William Shakespeare. Volume Two: Miscellaneous Topics"

JM said...

Craig wrote: "...a sketch of human knowledge. Volume One: William Shakespeare. Volume Two: Miscellaneous Topics"

A brilliant assessment of how things "really" stand. :)