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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Shakespeare vs the French Intellectual: Luxury and Humanity

There is a somewhat amusing essay in the New York Times about the French response to the economic downturn, especially as it pertains to the luxury industry. As might be expected, the French are having une crise, c’est à dire, a crisis.

After discussing how some French people are calling for a re-examination of values in the wake of hard economic times, the writer continues: “Some French intellectuals want to go much further, calling for the death of the entire luxury industry as a sort of national ritual of purification. ‘Since the ancient Greeks, luxury goods have always been stamped with the seal of immorality,’said Gilles Lipovetsky, a sociologist who has written several books about consumerism. They represent waste, the superficial, the inequality of wealth. They have no need to exist.’”

Mon dieu! This is going very far! Let’s put William Shakespeare up against the French . Or not Shakespeare, because, owing to his “negative capability” as identified by poet John Keats, we really don’t know what Shakespeare thought about anything. So how about the character King Lear instead?

Quick recap of play. Lear has decided to give up his power and live with his daughters. While dividing up the kingdom, he gets angry at his only good daughter, Cordelia, disinherits her, and divides the kingdom between his two other daughters, Goneril and Regan, both very bad. The deal is that he is to retain a hundred of his knights. But, of course, once he gives up his power, his bad daughters don’t have to honor the deal.

This is Lear’s response to his daughter’s suggestion that having a hundred of his knights around is a big pain for her and totally unnecessary anyway. He doesn’t NEED a hundred knights, she says. To which Lear exclaims:

O reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man's life is cheap as beast's. (2.4.264)

Yes, King Lear has made a lot of mistakes. Yes, he is difficult. But, according to the play, he is right: we NEED more than mere necessities. That is what makes us human.

For the full NYT essay:

So, dear readers, do you agree with the French philosopher or with King Lear?

And, dear readers, Mr. Dr. F. wanted to title this post "Lear-ning from the French," but I said "NON." What do you think? Good title or bad title?
Merci to all.

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