#51 On quality

Dear Mat,

Could there be a cult based on Hamlet? Sure, cults (short lived belief systems) spring up all over the place all the time. But I’m pretty sure it would never become a religion (long-lived belief system) because there is way too much uncertainty, ambiguity and ambivalence in Hamlet.

“To be or not to be?” — that is not the question for inspiring devotion.

“To what base uses we may return, Horatio. Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander till he find it stopping a bunghole?” — not the sentiment for getting people thinking about an afterlife.

Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?” — not the attitude required for followers of a charismatic leader.

Hamlet is a depressed antihero grappling with precisely the questions left unanswered by the religious tradition he inherited (Catholicism — the play is set in a historical Denmark, another country that went from Catholic to Protestant, as a proxy for England). Normally a religious figure has to go from questioning their inherited ideas (a la Buddha or Jesus) to offering new answers. Hamlet gives us no easy answers because there are no easy answers to his questions. That’s what makes it much more mature than a holy book, the work of a self-help guru, or a motivational bumpersticker. Someone who wants more questions should read Hamlet.

I also think that’s why more people in fortunate positions in modern society, blessed with formal and informal education, read Shakespeare than The Bible.

So how can you measure the quality of a text? It depends on what you want the answer to be. A mathematical formula? A simple procedure for judging works? A list of criteria? A heuristic to defer to? Well, I’ve been  obsessed with this for 15 years and have plenty of answers. And the examples I’ve been working with include The Bible and Hamlet. But in my experience people often say they want an answer that they wouldn’t actually accept. So they say, “Why isn’t there a formula for this?” but would call any formula simplistic. As it happens I think the right kind of answer is at least book length, dealing as it does with the most multidimensional, dense, deliberately complex written works of all time.

Like you say, test of time seems the safest heuristic to fall back on. Has The Bible withstood the test of time? Well, a group of people who refuse to subject it to the same kinds of tests as Shakespeare (on principle) can vouch for it. Indeed, by the group of people whose starting assumption is that it’s the unchallengeable word of god, it has remained for a long time. For them it provides many uses. Quality ain’t one. Even assessing its quality offends most believers.

Hamlet has lived or died according to different uses. Is it entertaining? Does it reward repeated study? Are there layers of meaning? Was it seemingly written by someone apparently alive like almost no one before or since, to the same vital questions that bother an ironic, modern mind? someone for whom the pabulum of The Bible is not wrong, so much as inadequate?

This is elitist. I totally think there is a hierarchy of quality. And English professors, at least by their revealed reading preferences, agree. Sturgeon’s law says 90% of everything is crap; Freestone’s is that 90% of people love crap. It’s not in any way their fault, it’s just their loss.

In the case of literary works, the interesting point is that they have been time-tested by critics of different points of view, with the idea of quality in mind. And the tests to which they’ve been put have themselves been tested, debated, criticised. The Bible has not been put to those kinds of tests (well it has and it’s failed). It survives not because of anything I would call quality, but because it benefits those who pass it on. Note the wording. It doesn’t even necessarily benefit those who read it (or who live by it without reading it).

Mao’s Little Red Book is popular because it benefits its propagators. Is the spread of Christianity (rather than other religions) mainly owing to its “metatruth” or its adoption by the emperor Theodosius? Some ideas get propagated because they serve the propagators (or are just good at getting themselves propagated and are neutral in their impact on their hosts). In the case of The Bible that’s not the only reason for its longevity. But we fortunately have a robust history of criticism on higher grounds with which to inform our valuable, limited reading time.

Almost nothing makes the cut. The myth of one cult that was in the right place at the right time, that has been less and less relevant for fortunate people in the last 400 years, doesn’t make the cut.


PS No one has written a dedicated history of subjectivity the way I’m talking about it. I wish someone had. If I were an historian I’d do it. (Here are some hints I’ve picked up on the trail: Eric Auerbach, Julian Jaynes, Michel Foucault, Nicholas Humphrey, Brian Skyrms, Jennifer Hecht, Alexanda Luria). I think that the quality of consciousness held by you and me is very different not only from that of our prehistoric forebears but also from the denizens of Iliad, from Russian illiterate peasants (who can’t entertain hypotheticals) and ourselves when we were children and when we’re drunk or asleep. I think the totally different nature of consciousness as depicted in texts over time must be some kind of clue. And I think, following Dennett, that freedom evolves, that we are more able to become decision makers who imagine different, anticipatable futures, than ever before.

Also published on Medium.