March 11, 2022
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
Last week marked the end of HMU’s Winter Film Series. I cannot express how much I love this series. If you were unable to join us, never fear, we will host another film series next winter. In the meantime, the following thoughts resulted from this wonderful discussion.
As usual, leader Gary Schoepfel opened discussion with some quotations focused on the idea of Truth. The quotes really helped focus the topic and therefore, I will begin in the same vein. This long quote by George Santayana asks what truth is and how humans are equipped to understand it. He writes:
“What is the function of philosophy? To disclose the absolute truth? But is it credible that the absolute truth should descend into the thoughts of a mortal creature, equipped with a few special senses and with a biased intellect, a man lost amidst millions of his fellows and a prey to the epidemic delusions of the race? Possession of the absolute truth is not merely by accident beyond the range of particular minds; it is incompatible with being alive, because it excludes any particular station, organ, interest, or date of survey: the absolute truth is undiscoverable just because it is not a perspective. Perspectives are essential to animal apprehension; an observer, himself a part of the world he observes, must have a particular station in it; he cannot be equally near to everything, nor internal to anything but himself; of the rest he can only take views, abstracted according to his sensibility and foreshortened according to his interests. Those animals which I was supposing endowed with an adequate philosophy surely do not possess the absolute truth. They read nature in their private idioms. Their imagination, like the human, is doubtless incapable of coping with all things at once, or even with the whole of anything natural. Mind was not created for the sake of discovering the absolute truth. The absolute truth has its intangible reality, and scorns to be known.”
Assuming that Santayana is correct, that the mind is incapable (or at least not made) to discover absolute truths, how are we to understand truth? In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard demonstrates this limitation through Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as they explore their environment. Because they were first created (or born) by Shakespeare in Hamlet, they continue to exist within the frame of the play. They were born onstage and remain eternally framed by the stage. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern know nothing of their past or their future, and struggle to understand their present. This is, I feel, not unlike any of us today. We remember aspects of the past, we formulate theories based on our understanding of events, we have present lives in which we see much of the world, but a whole lot goes by unnoticed too. As Rosencrantz and Guildenstern bumble along, they even confuse their identities. The audience never actually knows who is who, which leads to a number of enjoyable Abbott and Costello-like moments.
At one point in the play, they meet Tragedians. Excited for an audience, the main Player halts his crew who prepare for a performance. Slightly bewildered, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are still trying to figure out where they come from and where they are going. The conversation reflects the fact that everyone in the scene is, in some way, acting (even if they do not know or understand it). A little bit later, the Player explains, “We’re actors! We’re the opposite of people!” I am not entirely sure how to interpret this comment, other than to say that acting is not the same as being. The entire play questions being including who the audience is – is it us? Is it Rosencrantz and Guildenstern? In what way are the players alive? Where do they live? Where are they from? Where are they going? They explain their transience by saying: “We have no control. Tonight we play to the court. Or the night after. Or to the tavern. Or not.” Strictly speaking, they live among words in a text.
Furthermore, the players might also live in the minds of the audience. If this is true, then how does the audience reliably reconstruct events? Stoppard forces the audience to confront this question through constant confusion. No one knows which character is which, and as a result, the audience can never completely reconstruct an honest account. Even when we reflect upon the question of identity, it is difficult to decipher whether there are, in fact, two separate characters. They do develop slightly different personalities, but they have a combined purpose. This poses the question: what is a character? Which further poses the question: what is a person? If these characters exist as placeholders for an idea (as was suggested during our discussion), they must represent some sort of liminal world. Their existence is fleeting and contained. Is ours also?
In other words, this play questions the nature of human existence. It was also suggested that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are only relevant to themselves. Scripts and words rules their lives. Every time they are on the verge of understanding their physical world, the next scene rushes in.
In chasing the answers to these questions, I am reminded of a couple of quotes by Emerson:
“Truth is such a fly-away, such a sly-boots, so untransportable and unbarrelable a commodity, that it is as bad to catch as light.”
“God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please – you can never have both.”
Emerson indicates that humans must reflect and work to understand the world. Stoppard might agree. Analyzing Stoppard’s play, though beguiling, is a very worthwhile task. Thanks to the Winter Film Series participants for this journey into truth!
Harrison Middleton University hosts many public conversations and you are always welcome to join. Email Alissa at as****@hm*.edu for more details and registration.
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