This post was written by Kristen Blair, HC Undergraduate Student Fellow
In a moment of particularly moving emotion, William Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet bemoans his mother’s hasty transfer of affections. In his suffering, he says:
O, that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew,
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!1
My first time reading Hamlet, I recall stopping at this phrase to read it again and again, surprised at my own emotion. This image of a mind trapped in a body, flesh “melting” away and distilling into a form so transparent its only presence was watering the earth, evokes deep sympathy. And it strikes me that Hamlet is arguably Shakespeare’s most famous play; evidently I am not alone in a resonance with Hamlet’s existential pain. With less specificity, Hamlet’s plea is the plea of dualists in accounting for human suffering. It is the religious (and sometimes dogmatic) response to the pains endured here—the hope that this life is not sufficient to explain itself.
This hope, I believe, is the swelling sea of voices that the Humanities are built on. It is the echo through time, in paintings etched on caves and hieroglyphics hammered into stone, of people who are longing for beauty and meaning in the “weary, stale, [and] flat” landscape of mortality.
It is this same longing that I believe characterizes the melancholy of T.S. Elliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” In particular, the poem’s peach fascinates me: “Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?”2 Do I dare at all, in the mirage of the poem’s imposition, to grasp the thing that remains tantalizingly close, achingly ordinary and absurdly accessible and yet perpetually out of reach? The peach, that object of desire so quintessentially enigmatic, drab in its own averageness, the peach is the thing that nags at my conscience, the irritating gadfly3 of a perpetual thirst for more and more and more.
I suspect that a similarly metaphorical peach is the object of illusion so apparently troublesome in the complex story of Adam and Eve in paradise. The “beguiling” serpent’s invitation was to fruit as provocatively accessible as the unbound peach of J. Alfred Prufrock:
And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.4
Eve’s first two observations fit obvious criteria: physical nourishment and aesthetic appeal—arguably Darwinian distinctions of a survival of the fittest and thus most appealing. The third item, however, strikes me as unique: “a tree to be desired to make one wise.” It is knowledge that captivates the mother of all living, she who becomes a symbol of earth and bounty and life. This craving for knowledge seems to be a craving for meaning, for some semblance of method or purpose to the proceedings of an otherwise arbitrary and mechanistic system. It is a longing for life beyond what is given automatically.
The “peach” I take from the story is alluring in its symbolic representation because it is ever flourishing, ever present, and ever evasive. Satisfying the longing, at least in Eve’s case, leads to unprecedented consequences and the unrolling of a human saga, the complexity of which manifests poignantly in the image of a “God that weeps.” Little wonder, then, that a longing continues to characterize the human story. Perhaps we are all battling our own daring, the self-daring craving to satisfy the query of human ponderings subject to a world progressing towards entropy, static only in the imagination. In some ways it seems to be the journey of Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill eternally, never to rest or vary. Questions invariably lead to more questions; time exists only in relation to our perception of time. The story of humankind in this light does appear a story of lamentation, justifying Arthur Schopenhauer’s claim that the meaning of life is suffering.
Still, my own moments of resonance with Hamlet’s aching imploration universally leave me craving the “peach” of knowledge, or meaning, or something beyond what seems unavoidably and emphatically ugly. The Humanities foster this longing, feed this longing, nurture and increase this longing. Above all, I believe the Humanities remind us that longing is never fully satisfied—knowledge is perhaps never a destination but rather a kind of vista of awareness and increased vision. Perhaps a knowledge of truth, even, is less an arrival at a harbor, and more a realization of an endless ocean into which we are swimming and could be swimming eternally. Every piece of knowledge built on truth of some nature must then reveal itself in a myriad of hues and expressions, its core entity or state of being entirely veiled to our realm of experience.
I believe that the narrative of lamentation is a narrative of longing—the cry of the exiled who wish to greet a place of sight, a crest in the valley where the horizon meets the sky and forms a picture of grace. Perhaps longing is, in its own perpetuation, meaning. That we all might dare to reach out to the peach, to cling to the melting flesh, to grasp and keep on grasping—this I believe to be the prayer of the Humanities.
I have a longing for life, and I go on living in spite of logic. Though I may not believe in the order of the universe, yet I love the sticky little leaves as they open in spring. I love the blue sky, I love some people, whom one loves you know sometimes without knowing why. I shall not weep from despair, but simply because I shall be happy in my tears, I shall steep my soul in emotion. I love the sticky leaves in spring, the blue sky — that’s all it is. It’s not a matter of intellect or logic, it’s loving with one’s inside, with one’s stomach. –Fyodor Dostoyevsky
1. Hamlet, Act I Scene ii
2. T.S. Elliot, “The Love Song of J. Alred Prufrock”
3. From Plato’s “Apology”
4. Moses 5:5-6
5. Moses 7
6. Greek Mythology, The Legend of Sisyphus
7. Arthur Schopenhauer, “On the Sufferings of the World”
8. The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky