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WeaknessReview - Weakness
A Literary and Philosophical History
by Michael O'Sullivan
Bloomsbury Academic, 2012
Review by Bob Lane, MA
Jul 9th 2013 (Volume 17, Issue 28)

There is a new Superman movie coming out this summer. That is exciting news for fans of Superman, and who isn't a fan of Superman? What does Superman have to do with weakness? Think about it: a hero with no weakness can hardly be heroic, since being heroic means overcoming fear or weakness. But if a hero has no weakness s/he cannot BE a hero! So, in the beginning there was kryptonite. Even Superman is vulnerable, is weak, is potentially precarious around kryptonite. As O'Sullivan writes, "The exploration of weakness can bring together secular and spiritual accounts of a shared, humane regard for life that works across traditions. It can speak for both the recognition of limits and a pragmatic sense of possibility." (190)

This is a book about 'the authentic weakness of being' [Beckett] and 'everlasting precariousness' (189), and a study of philosophy and literature from Lao Tzu to Coetzee – essentially a study of how to be in the world and how to be virtuous as a human in the world. O'Sullivan brings together strength and weakness, East and West, body and soul, philosophy and literature in his review of philosophical positions from Socrates to Derrida and his keen analysis of literary texts. Examining the nature of weakness has inspired some of the most influential aesthetic and philosophical portraits of the human condition. By reading a selection of canonical literary and philosophical texts O'Sullivan charts a history of responses to the experience and exploration of weakness.

When Hamlet said that the dramatist was to hold up a mirror to nature there was implicit in the statement the idea that the reflection would be accurate and would be determined by universal and absolute natural laws which would reveal the stability of human nature underneath the appearances of humans acting out various motives, anxieties, hopes and wishes. The mirror metaphor is one that can be used to tease out different attitudes held over time by our writers and thinkers. Hamlet's mirror reflects stable meaning to the discerning eye - we have objective knowledge (often screened by appearances or dimmed by our various weaknesses), a medium of transfer (in this case dramatic literature), and a subject. The idea seems to be: if the dramatist has a steady hand, and the mirror has no Hubbell flaws, then the report received by a careful observer will be accurate and meaningful.

In the years since Hamlet that mirror has been turning away from nature and is focusing more on the human face. In the nineteenth century, in a great poem like Wordsworth's The Prelude, the mirror is reflecting the human mind:

Into our Minds, into the Mind of Man..

My haunt, and the main region of my song.

and as yet with no apparent distortion. Wordsworth insists that the mind, including the imagination, shapes and gives meaning to the "not-me", the outside world, but finds some spiritual force which binds the mind and all things together. In his famous lines:

And I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused,

Whose dwelling is the light of setting air,

And the blue sky, and in the minds of man:

A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

And rolls through all things.

Wordsworth has the double theme of how the mind is fitted to the external world and how the world is fitted to the mind, and we can see that he is allowing a reality to both the mind and the "not-mind." His mirror no longer reflects truths from the world to the mind, but acts as a combination mirror and window which allows him to see both the external realities and the inner field. No one will deny that Wordsworth's emphasis is on the individual poet's mind, on powerful feelings which have been filtered through the poet's mind or imagination. When he says that poetry "takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity," he is prophetically stating the twentieth century commonplace about the subjective aspect of knowledge. O'Sullivan's chapter on Keats and Wordsworth investigates this movement in thought from objective to subjective. Today we can agree that the form or meaning seen in a bunch of daffodils, or a lone twisted oak tree is projected into the landscape by the human mind observing the scene, and the nature of the projection is thought to tell us something about the mind which is doing the projection.

As soon as the individual human mind becomes involved in creating the reality and discussing the creating of the reality which Hamlet's mirror was to reflect unaided, we are involved in a skepticism. Wordsworth's muse becomes, not nature, but his reaction to nature; and his bond of union between himself and the universe becomes delight. Remove the delight and the skepticism becomes solipsism. The mirror darkens and begins to show a twisted, clumsy, anti-hero, alone in an unsponsored universe, turning more and more inward, lost in the cocoon words and thoughts, which may be all that exist.

Wordsworth stands half-way between Shakespeare and Beckett. Wordsworth has a mirror which reflects the world as reflected in his mind, but the mirror is in one piece. When Waiting for Godot and Endgame were first produced it was apparent that the mirror was broken, and that what Beckett had was "a bundle of broken mirrors" which when dragged out on stage reflected parts of the human stature back and forth in a circular game of hats, words, repetition of scenes, and extremely clever gestures without meaning. There is no longer any delight which binds humans to the universe; there is simply waiting: waiting which fills the reprieve between birth and death, waiting which engages our attention while making the journey from "spermarium to crematorium," waiting which is futile and offers very little suggestion of heroic endurance. This dramatic shift in point of view from objective to subjective and its results as far as understanding works of art and our personal place in this world are the subject matter of this readable and interesting study.

Part One reviews the various philosophies of weakness (and strength) by discussing weakness of will, Christianity and the incarnation of the Word into World, Nietzsche ad Kierkegaard, Phallic Identity versus Womb Vision, and survivability and mindfulness. In Part Two O'Sullivan focusses on literary texts and interpretations by studying key texts from Keats, Wordsworth, Dickens, Joyce, Proust, Beckett, and Coetzee. The chapter on Beckett is of particular interest offering important readings of Beckett's works, both early and late. In his Conclusion O'Sullivan argues that a awareness of the literary and philosophical traditions of weakness can be the foundation for a shared and humane ethic.

Weakness has few weaknesses and is a book that adds depth to the Continuum Literary Studies Series.

 

© 2013 Bob Lane

 

Bob Lane is an Honorary Research Associate in Philosophy and Literature at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.


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