Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Sibling Assignment #73: Shakespeare and the Mystery of the Meaning of Life

It's time to really get back in the swing of things on this blog. I'm dreadfully behind in writing sibling assignments, so one of the first things I'll do is caught up.

InlandEmpireGirl raised this question for Sibling Assignment #73:
As the school year here is the assignment. Write about a school experience that was significant to your school life. Describe the experience and why it was significant.
InlandEmpireGirl remembers being a public poet in the sixth grade here and Silver Valley Girl explores arriving at a deeper understanding of the relevance of essay writing, here.


When I enrolled at Whitworth College in 1974, I don't know what I thought I would discover through my study of Shakespeare. The Shakespeare course was required for my English major. Eileen, whom I would marry in two years, loved Shakespeare and we decided to take the course together.

In my two years at North Idaho College, almost all of my study of literature was concentrated in the twentieth century. I fell in love with the modern study of stories and poems that explored the lonely, alienated condition of the human being in an empty and meaningless world and the great weight of responsibility the modern human being carried to make meaning out of h/her existence in a world devoid of essential meaning.

I had experienced this meaninglessness in the summer of 1973 when I was nearly killed at the Bunker Hill Zinc Plant. The accident resulted from a random human error. It was purposeless, unprovoked, and unrelated to whether I was a good person or to anything I did.

I was blinded. During the days I was blind, my eyes turned inward and within myself I saw the very nothingness that modern writers explored as the one universal truth about life. I confronted the benign indifference of the universe within myself.

I came to believe that forging meaning in such an empty world was up to me. Through my study of literature at North Idaho College, I obsessively worked to figure out the meaning of my life and life itself.

When I commenced my study of Shakespeare, I thought I would find in Shakespeare's plays a well-ordered world, free of the absurdity of the modern world. I thought I would find these plays outdated, irrelevant to the struggles of my existential crisis.

The first day of the course, our professor, Dean Ebner, introduced Shakespeare by telling us that we would be entering into an exploration of the meaning of life. I gasped. Why would studying Shakespeare's plays and his characters involve exploring life's meaning? I thought that "back then" it was figured out and that it was thanks to the obliterating impact of the two world wars in the twentieth century that the meaning of life had been erased. I thought the question of life's meaning was a modern question.

Early in the course, the plays did not shake me up. I didn't feel the tremors of anxiety and doubt about the meaning of life I had felt studying modern literature.

But then we studied Othello. Iago began to shake me. I couldn't believe that an "old writer" from the turn of the 16th into the 17th century could have imagined and created such an amoral and duplicitous character so energetically committed to evil. I couldn't believe Iago's glee.

I was reading Othello in the basement of South Warren Hall and began to tremble. The character Othello was in an existential predicament. The world of loyalty and trust that Othello had assumed to be intact started to unravel. Absurdity, chaos, unpredictablity, all engineered by Iago became the dominant reality of his world. He couldn't make sense of it. Fear and rage fuelled by his outrage at the deterioration of his world view began to destroy him from within himself. Othello lurched from extreme distraction to murderous calm, unable to forge meaning out of his disillusion.

I was getting it. There is no such thing "back then". It hit me. Human beings have always wrestled with how to make sense out life, out of the excruciating demands of mutablility, out of the pain and disillusion of things in life never being what we might idealize them to be.

As we moved forward to Hamlet and especially King Lear, I spent more and more time leaving my dorm room and walking through the November fog that encased the towering pine trees on Whitworth's campus, feeling the passion of Shakespeare's tragedies, exploring how my life at this very young age paralleled the uncertainty, painful self-exploration, loss of idealism, and riddling mysteries Shakespeare brought to life in the actions and interior monologues of these characters.

To this day, thirty-four years later, Shakespeare is the philosopher and artist I look to with the most trust to help me understand what a dicey, often unfair, and inherently contradictory experience human life is.

Shakespeare's plays and poetry helped light my understanding of all other writers and all other philosophers I've studied.

It was through my study of Shakespeare that I have come to understand the complexity of the stories of the Bible and the parables and poetic words of Jesus.

No other writer has so profoundly shaped my perceptions, insight, wisdom, or understanding of love, war, politics, despair, redemption, restoration, human nature, and the condition of human life itself.

1 comment:

Loren Minnick said...

Hello -
Found your blog via search for Dean Ebner... Ivan Dean, to be exact! (He was/is always exact!)
I'm prepping for the Oakland "retirement" blow-out next weekend and can't help but remember Ebner as part of the Holy Quad of Whitworth English in the mid-Sixties (Oakland/Ebner/Ken Richardson/Clarence Simpson).
I granulated in 1968 and, like you, took it all very seriously and am still amazed at how effectively they used lit to explore spiritual values. That was the genius of Whitworth at that time. It was pretty easy to dismiss all the Young Life (and worse... no dancing allowed when I first showed up in 1964!) trappings of the school, but this crew taught with a power that spoke to all us runner agnostics.
Anyway, Dean and Leonard were young pups in 1965 and it would be great to meet up with Dean again at some point. I've remained in touch with Leonard and his amazing family as well as Pierrette and others from the 60s.
Best wishes

Loren Minnick