Sunday, May 7, 2017

Honor: Shakespeare's Falstaff, Trump's Vocabulary

Well, ’tis no matter. Honor pricks me on.
Yea, but how if honor prick me off when I come on?
 How then? Can honor set to a leg? no. Or an arm? no.
Or take away the grief of a wound?
No. Honor hath no skill in surgery, then? No.
What is honor? A word. What is in that word “honor”?
— Falstaff, before the Battle of Shrewsbury, 1 Henry IV 5.1.129-33

            In "The Pretty Complete Shakespeare Guide to Donald Trump," I list among the parallels to Trump Shakespeare's Sir John Falstaff. I don't quote the line, but the primary parallel was summed up in Falstaff's reflection "Lord, lord, how subject we old men are to this vice of lying!" (ˆ2 Henry IV 3.2.301-2) and how in both cases the "lies are like their father that begets them; gross as a mountain, open, palpable" (1 Henry IV 2.4.212-14).

            A more subtle parallel came up around 4 and 5 May of 2017: dates I remember since the 4th of May is the anniversary of the shootings at Kent State University in 1970, and 5 May is Cinco de Mayo, with a capital "C": a holiday in my part of the US as well as Battle of Puebla Day in Mexico. When asked about meeting with Kim Jong Un, dictator of North Korea, Mr. Trump responded, CNN reported, "If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would absolutely, I would be honored to do it."

            I have no complaints with the idea of the President of the United States calling the long-standing bluff of the North Koreans and arranging a full-scale peace conference to end the Korean War, with some of the groundwork laid in a quick, properly chaperoned, private meeting between the US President and the supreme leader of the PRK. My interest here is Mr. Trump saying he'd be honored.

            I quote as a headnote Falstaff's self-"catechism" asking himself if he should risk life and limb in battle for "honor." He does fight, sort of, but not for honor; and some people might not like the conclusion that "honor" is just a word: air, breath, a symbol like a scutcheon — a coat of arms ("escutcheon") displayed at a funeral. Honor, at least for Falstaff, at least of the military variety, is what makes living men dead soldiers.

            Note, though, that in the Henry plays and elsewhere people, especially men-type people, act for honor, but only Falstaff asks what the word means. It's a good question. "Honor" can imply mere reputation or even more crassly the sort of "honor" one gets on the Monarch's "Honour's List" as it was back in the day of, say, Macbeth, when an "honor" could imply a title, plus land, money, and power. That's behind the exchange when Macbeth before the murder of King Duncan so very carefully sounds out Banquo's willingness to support … something, at some time. Neither Macbeth nor Shakespeare had the phrase "plausible deniability," but they understood the concept.  

MACBETHIf you shall cleave to my consent, when 'tis,It shall make honour for you.
BANQUO                                                 So I lose noneIn seeking to augment it, but still keepMy bosom franchised and allegiance clear,I shall be counsell'd. (Macbeth 2.1.25-29)

Macbeth suggests there'll be "honour" as in profit for Banquo if he goes along with some action by Macbeth in the future. Banquo responds with a reference to a more refined honor when he puts a condition on his cooperation. He'll cooperate so long as doing so would be honorable, with "honorable" as in ethical and patriotic.

            Falstaff is the philosopher of 1 Henry IV, and a great comedian, a master of words.

            "Honor," Falstaff says, pricks him on — as in pricking with a goad for cattle (cf. to "goad someone [on]). But what if honor figuratively pricks him off — checks him off the list of the living — when he "comes on," i.e., presses forward into battle. There's a joke here, and it's a tribute to Falstaff's verbal brilliance that it's on us, his audience. Nowadays, to dirty-minded adolescent boys and some girls, "prick me off" and "come on" sound … suggestive. Same suggestions back in Shakespeare's day, with "prick," which has and had the slang meaning of "penis" and "come," which has possibilities. The joke is that this isn't dirty, and a good actor could look at the audience and get across, "Oh, you nasty-minded people!"

            Like Falstaff, the theoretically Honorable Donald J. Trump bends reality — as he perceives it — to his will with words; unlike Sir John, Trump is careless with words and possibly often ignorant.

            Since Kim Jong Un commands a military with several thousand artillery tubes that can be brought to bear on Seoul, South Korea, it is well for American presidents to avoid insulting him. Such prudence, however, does not require sucking up, which would be the case if Mr. Trump really expressed his feelings in indicated he'd feel honored to meet with Kim.

            Significant here, for me anyway, is that Mr. Trump doesn't much care what the word "honored" means and that most of his supporters apparently don't care that he doesn't care.

            We are seeing I think a temporary culmination of a long-running trend.

            Back when I was teaching, every few semesters I'd return essays and write on the chalkboard in large letters, Words mean. And one semester I got some pushback on that assertion. A moderately cute couple of my students branded me a Literalist and one or other of the pair wrote and submitted a satiric attack on The Literalist as a type. This was in a course in expository writing (i.e., essays), and I'm pretty sure it was during the period I was starting out our work with examining "Sayings and Such": sayings, proverbs, coachly clichés — that sort of stuff. The first one was, "A stich in time saves nine," and I asked the students to explain what that meant and what you had to do to figure it out (finish the thought for one thing: "A stich in time saves nine stiches"). And then we'd move on to meatier matters like "No Pain, / No Gain." Is that true for weight training"? (I was taught "No"; my students were taught "Yes"; and a lot depends on what one means by "pain.") And for coached team sports, Pain for whom? Gain for whom? (I received a hell of an essay on that one from a student who finished a high school football game with his knees shot up with a cortisone and Xylocaine cocktail. At the end of the term, I confirmed with the student that the "I" of the essay was he and asked how he was doing. He replied, "I can walk, but I'm not playing football." His father punched out the coach, but the coach and trainer were otherwise unpunished.)

            Or what does it mean when a coach or principal or boss asks you to devote "110%" to the team or school or job? Obviously, the statement is figurative since s/he can't demand 110%, not with percentages only going up to 100. What percent are we talking about here — and why don't players and students or teachers or workers ask just what percentage is being demanded? My last question is mostly rhetorical. Part of the answer, though, is that they'd get in trouble for pointing out that an authority figure was bullshitting and/or demanding a blank check; and another part is that people don't even notice the bullshit or care much. People could say, "Okay, I realize that "110%" is a figure of speech, but what do you literally have in mind? Personally, I have other demands on me — legitimate demands — so I can give the team (school, job) maybe 20%."

            Few people say such things 'cause they want to avoid trouble, and over hundreds and thousands of unresisted utterances of such bullshit, it gets normalized and becomes unremarkable.

            More innocent is the sort of carelessness encapsulated in one of my oldest school memories. The pedantic old woman who taught my fourth grade class — fourth grade or thereabouts — complained about people's saying they "love ice cream." They wouldn't run back into a burning building to save Ice Cream, and they don't have a personal relationship with it, so she wondered why we couldn't just say we like ice cream. She was pedantic, overly fastidious, and right.

            Over hundreds and thousands of casual sloppy utterances, an important word like "love" gets a little trivialized and moves toward a heart-shape on Facebook.


            Other aspects of the hyperbole subset of bullshit were a problem for me writing recommendations. The Director of Film Studies told me I was screwing over students in saying that they were "competent, diligent, reliable, and bright." That was damning with faint praise. The graduate programs and grants and transfers our students applied for demanded brilliance and unique qualifications. I noted to the Director that if the applicants were as good as the screening committees apparently demanded, what the hell were they doing in our program much less why would they go to programs little better than ours? Applicants as good as the programs seemed to be demanding would do better than those programs.

            What I ended up doing was using my old terms but explaining them and, on occasion, giving where I was coming from.

                        Item 1: In response to something I said, the Chair of my department looked at me and replied, "Oh, come on, Rich; you've got a second-rate mind." To which I replied, "Yes, but I'm at a third-rate school." He didn't argue the point. If Cambridge and Chicago in their glory days, and Harvard and Stanford were or are first-rate; if the Big Ten school my boss and I attended was second-rate — then a school like Miami University at Oxford (Ohio) was third-rate.

                        Item 2: Probably in response to a self-deprecating remark I'd made, and quite likely after a couple or more gin-and-tonics, the great scholar of Medieval literature, Robert Kaske said to me, "No Rich; you're bright. (beat) Not brilliant, but bright." Kaske was brilliant; I was and generally still am, bright. I was and am also competent, professional, diligent, and dependable, and when I call an applicant those things it's significant praise. Brilliant is nice, but brilliant people aren't always diligent and dependable — or loyal to the people who gave them a break or their first job. Brilliant people can do better.

            With one candidate I really wanted to praise, I wrote that the person "is one of the most intelligent people I've met. He is not as bright as, say, Susan Sontag, Octavia Butler, Michael Harrington, Ursula K. Le Guin, or Senator Paul Douglas, but [s/he] is in their league and is among the brightest of the people who were my instructors, students, colleagues, and/or superiors in the hierarchies at the University of Illinois, Michael Reese Medical Center, Cornell University, and Miami University."

* *

We can be more careful with language, and one good thing Mr. Trump may accomplish is showing how important such care can be. Now that lesson may be taught if he makes some horrible verbal error and Kim Jong Un orders the bombardment of Seoul — but short of that, he can teach some valuable lessons on what not to do.
            "What is honor?" Well, it's not a meeting with a two-bit dictator.

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