A treasured theme of my high school English papers has been troubling me again lately.
I used to think of the tensions between appearance and reality in terms of misapprehension or deception — Oedipus unwittingly bedding his mother, or Viola pretending to be a man in “Twelfth Night.” I suppose this suited my teen wonder at how often things are not as they seem — how prone we are to mistakes based either on poor judgment or on the universe’s refusal to conform to our expectations. These are the failings of the fooled, who take insufficient care or presume that reality can’t bite. The remedy? Be observant and cautious.
I’ve tried. My penchant for observation led me from literature to journalism, which I embraced after concluding that what used to call itself The English Profession itself was a self-deluding enterprise (don’t get me started…) and, well, after working for three years in a framing store with a master’s degree in English. I wanted to write about life in all of its messy glory, and managed to view it through an aesthetic prism after all by writing about the arts for four newspapers. (My legendary caution has served me ill about as often as it’s saved my ass, so let’s leave that…)
As a journalism instructor, I like to tell students that reporters call their work “stories” for a reason, and not because of the inner novelist supposedly tormenting every cop-shop veteran. Stories are how we organize and understand the world, and have done so for ages, and that’s why, in part, I wanted to be a writer. Fiction or nonfiction, it didn’t matter — both were valid means of accessing Truth. It mattered, though, that they were different enterprises, that one sought Truth in telling stories about facts and the other found it in inventions. And it mattered, too, that appearance and reality, as I’d figured out by college, encompassed more than questions of deception and delusion — that their tension outlined a central issue of philosophy.
Enough of the English major lingers in me to understand that journalism’s objectivity fetish too often produces neither truth nor fact — particularly in a media universe flush with appealing narratives. But the journalist in me insists that facts matter, and that we have to treat the universe as if objective reality exists, even if it does not.
The problem is that narrative has become almost synonymous with appearance — as the opposite of reality. Whether it’s the journalism narrative du jour, such as the Romney post-debate surge that really wasn’t, or the fabrication of flattering, feel-good imagery that keeps us buying stuff, we witness illusion and delusion at work around us every day. Thomas de Zengotita made this point well in 2005’s “Mediated: How the Media Shapes Our World and the Way We Live in It,” — that media is about retailing narratives from which we pull meaning. It’s partly because of this that “appearance matters” — sometimes more so than reality.
So I decided to revisit the old literary theme by tracking down an essay by the Harvard Shakespeare scholar Theodore Spencer. In “Appearance and Reality in Shakespeare’s Last Plays,” [you have to register] published in Modern Philology in February 1942, Spencer observes that the turn of the 17th century marked a shift in Renaissance humanist thought, from a belief that by using reason to temper animal sense, we can aspire to angelic intellect, to a certainty that we are just animals.
“The most sensitive minds of the early seventeenth century felt that the reality about man’s nature was evil and that the good — man’s capacity for raising himself to the level of our intellect — was merely an appearance,” Spencer writes. In England, already roiling with religious disputes, this led to a theater of excess emotionalism, of spectacular and bloody revenge dramas. Eventually, though, it produced a backlash of religious fundamentalism that resulted in the revolution that beheaded Charles I and brought Oliver Cromwell to power. “An awareness of evil, a kind of passionate disillusionment, became a passionate desire for certainty, which found its expression in passionate action,” Spencer notes. “The first stage was expressed through popular literature, Elizabethan and Jacobean drama; the second through popular religion.”
But Spencer argues that Shakespeare’s late plays, especially “The Tempest,” locate a reality of good behind the appearance of evil. Through processes of purgation and transformation, characters afflicted by false appearances, or topsy-turvy circumstances, find that the reality remains that we can use reason to achieve intellect. Thus, Miranda in “The Tempest” proclaims, “How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,/That has such people in’t!”
Reason remains the key here: A resistance to the emotional lure of appearance and an insistence on parsing the facts of reality. We might not be after angelic intellect but reason will at least lead us to Truth, even still. It might be silly of me to insist upon it, but I will. That’s my resolution for this blog in 2013.