Martha Corey-Ochoa's essays range from the intensely personal to the philosophical to the literary to the occasional.
Elliptical Orbits and Human Relationships
What Geometrical Figure Best Describes the Nature of Human Love?
Intention versus Instinct in Heart of Darkness
Perceptive Madness in Hamlet and Ophelia
College Application Essay: In Praise of Knowledge
Why I Write
I write because I must. If I have been away from a keyboard or a notebook for days, or sometimes even for an hour, I feel compelled to return just as a person swimming underwater would feel compelled to return to the surface for air.
He may not have been handsome or even alive, but he had dark hair and pale skin and unhappy eyes, and he was young and in pain, and that was all I needed to fall in love with him. On May 9, 2008, I sat on the playroom sofa drying my hair before school and reading Russia under the Czars, which until this point had been a pleasant but unremarkable read. My violin lay next to me, shielded in its black case. Birds were chirping outside, perhaps flirtatiously, but I could barely hear them with the hairdryer on. I read as one would read a magazine article, glancing at the pictures and letting the words wash over me in the hopes that one of them might elicit from me more than a mild interest in the subject.
The word was “tortured.” Past tense, yes, although in the sentence it was part of a more complicated construction involving past participles and helping verbs. The sentence, or rather a fragment of the sentence, read, “Peter had his son tortured.” That caught my attention. I had bought Russia under the Czars as part of a library book sale, three hardcovers for two dollars, and one of the other hardcovers had been a history book in the same series. I had purchased that book, Cortes and the Aztec Conquest, on the twin desires of enriching my mind and finding a mention of the torture of the Aztec leader Cuauhtemoc. I had read in an otherwise rosy Spanish reader about how the Spanish conquerors burned the soles of his feet, and had heard my Spanish teacher explain to the class that when you feel warmth in your feet, your whole body feels warm, so you can imagine that when fire is applied to the feet, the whole body feels pain.
Now I do not remember what Cortes and the Aztec Conquest said about Cuauhtemoc, or whether he was given anything more than a passing mention. These are books for the general reader, and the general reader prefers stories of conquerors to stories of losers. Mainly, the general reader is not a sadist, and the same mentions of torture that can send my imagination into a frenzy leave him with little more than a quick feeling of disgust.
I reread the paragraph about Peter’s son. His name, in this book, was Alexis, an Anglicized version of his Russian name, Aleksei. His father was Peter the Great of Russia, a name I had heard on occasion without realizing its terrible significance. Now this name leaped out of the pit of obscurity where I had filed him away with such luminaries as Louis XIV and Alexander the Great. He was not yet a villain in my mind, but neither was he the hero that the author, Henry Moscow, was trying to make him out to be. On that first day, he, like his son, was only a man. That would change.
That evening, I looked up Peter the Great on Wikipedia. At the top of most of its biographical articles, Wikipedia includes a box about the subject’s origin, occupation, and family, among other bits of information. The first name under the list of Peter’s children was Alexei Petrovich. Realizing that Alexei was the reason for my research, I clicked on his name. It took me to a page of information about him, which to me was like the overwhelming banquet at a wedding I had attended a few years before. The first thing I noticed on the page was Aleksei’s portrait. He had long, curly black hair, pale skin, and tragic, angry eyes. He was not handsome, at least not by twenty-first-century American standards, but he was arresting.
From a young age, I have been fascinated by torture. It is this drive more than any other that has led me into the field of history. The past is marked by violence, provided you look far enough past the cheerful half-truths of the textbooks. I grew up with history, yet I never came to appreciate the violence that drove it until I was nearly finished with middle school. By this point, I was already a young woman, and gravely ashamed of my secret fascination with suffering men. I entered high school determined to purify my sadism in the crucible of love.
I married Aleksei on the evening of July 21, 2008. That whole day, I had carefully shoved aside my feelings, making casual conversation with people I barely knew and pretending to smile when I felt I was about to choke from superficiality and boredom. I felt like dying, but nobody needed to know that. Not my roommate, with her laughter even at tragic events. Not my teachers, with their careful professional distance. Not the ubiquitous ballerinas, with their sculpted hair and haughty grace.
My roommate was already sleeping when the waves of ecstasy came over me that night. I had felt euphoria before, but this euphoria had a different flavor. Although it was fleeting, it carried with it an air of permanence that swept through the palpable darkness of my dorm room and into my thinly covered bed. I momentarily forgot about my cold, bleak setting as I was transported into a realm heated by the warmth of love. For the first time I realized that my dream of marriage to Aleksei was not only possible, but an inevitable reality.
I met Aleksei on the morning of May 9, 2008, as I was reading Russia under the Czars on my playroom sofa. It was a cool, foggy morning, its monotony broken only by the occasional bird singing or dog barking. The chill of the morning had crept into my room, and the blasting heat of my hair dryer could do little to undo the cold. I was almost finished with the chapter on Peter the Great, a Russian emperor, when I came across a paragraph about Aleksei. He was Peter’s eldest son and heir, but his relationship with his father was strained because Aleksei was opposed to Peter’s reforms. He fled to Austria to escape persecution at his father’s hands, but Peter’s diplomats convinced him to return to Russia. In Russia, he was imprisoned and tortured under his father’s orders. He died in prison before execution, probably as a result of the torture.
This story disturbed me enough that I went onto Wikipedia that night and read the article about Aleksei. The article provided more information about Aleksei’s intellectual and religious leanings; his marriage to a German princess named Charlotte, who died during his lifetime; the details of his interrogation and torture; and his age at his death—twenty-eight. The number twenty-eight haunts me still.
All this information intrigued me, but the most captivating part of the article was the portrait of Aleksei. His dark brown eyes stared at me out of my computer screen with a gaze that at once condemned and pitied the entire world. His long curly brown hair framed his narrow face. His pursed, unsmiling lips suggested worry. He wore a dull scarlet jacket that reminded me of a dying rose at the onset of autumn.
I was deeply attracted to the air of melancholy in Aleksei’s portrait. All my life, I had been surrounded by playful, smiling boys with no inclinations toward knowledge or intensity. Aleksei fulfilled my desire for an intense, intellectual Christian man. Moreover, his story satisfied my unspoken need for tragedy. I fed off of sorrow. It was the only way I could feel anything.
The grief never left our relationship, but I began to feel new things as well. The gentle breezes and caressing warmth of the approaching summer matched the pleasure and purpose I gained from my exhaustive research on Aleksei. No matter how many times I read about him, a shiver of excitement always ran through me at his name. I filled in the details of his life that I had been missing: his education with Russian and foreign tutors, his love for his mother, the time he shot himself in the hand to avoid an examination by his father. I began teaching myself Russian, his native language. I mentioned my research to anyone who would listen, but they were not worried—yet.
I miss the intellectual freedom of those days, when I could study Aleksei’s life without any reproof from my parents. That freedom changed on June 3, 2009, when I told my parents about my love for Aleksei. My mother laughed off the intensity of my passion as I talked and she hung up clothes in her brightly lit bedroom. My father understood the intensity, which made his reaction much worse. As we sat and talked in uncomfortable black chairs in his darkened office, he implied that my obsession with Aleksei was unhealthy and possibly delusional. A few weeks later, he and my mother coerced me into seeing a psychiatrist. I lied to the psychiatrist for a while about my romance, but eventually I told the truth. He rewarded my honesty by doubling my dosage of antipsychotics, drugs that stop delusions, or false beliefs. By everyone else’s standards, my conviction that Aleksei and I loved each other was a delusion. By my standards, this romantic obsession was the most beautiful thing in my life.
I wonder whether my parents had a point in not wanting me to be obsessively in love with a dead man. They could see the way this obsession dominated my life and drove me away from ordinary human company. This was not much of a loss to me, but it hurt them because my obsession drove me away from them as well. They disagreed with my theory that Aleksei and I were soul mates, destined for each other despite the 304-year gap in our ages. My father understood the immense pleasure I gained from my spiritual romance, but he feared that it would cause me to hurt myself. For me, any cost was worth it for the joy I gained from loving Aleksei. Even the grief of our long separation was not enough to deter me from my obsession.
Before I knew love, I knew obsession. My fervent research, my eagerness to dream of Aleksei, and my incessant thoughts about him all indicated obsession. Within a month, my obsession had blossomed into love. When I was bored during school, I typed love songs on the desk as I would on a keyboard. My fingers danced across the plain brown desk with the quiet intensity of new love. At home I played love songs on the violin and sang them when I was sure no one was listening. I sought opportunities to go outside into the warm summer day with its gentle breeze, where Aleksei’s presence was the strongest. The horizon seemed both infinite and dangerously close, and my love was drawn in primal lines.
One day, as I was helping my mother trim the deep red roses in our small but fertile garden, a bold idea came to me. I excused myself from the gardening as quickly as possible and ran to bedroom to get my diary, whose entries were addressed to Aleksei. I wrote my letters in English, signed them in Russian. With an eagerness that embarrassed me, I flipped to the back of my Russian-English, looking for the Russian word for “wife.” I intended to sign the letter, “Your wife, Martha.”
I did not make it to the back of the dictionary. Too soon, I realized my error. What if Aleksei did not want me as his wife? I flipped back through the dictionary’s dog-eared pages, looking instead for the word for “friend.” I signed the letter, “Your friend, Martha,” trying unsuccessfully to make myself believe that friendship was a stronger bond than marriage anyway. But I knew it was fear rather than nobility that kept me from writing the word “wife.”
Although I was afraid to consider myself as Aleksei’s wife, I already considered myself his widow. Chronologically, it made no sense how a woman’s husband could die without ever having married her. How could he be her former husband if he had never been her husband? Yet the pull to mourn was too strong. Black quickly became my favorite color. I did not have the audacity to ask my parents to buy me a new black wardrobe, but I was able to buy a few black shirts and a black bracelet with rose decoration. I rediscovered my old black shirt, the one I had let my mom buy me ages ago, before I thought I would ever wear black. Back then, I could not see the appeal of such a bland color as black.
Back then, I was not in mourning.
On June 26, 2008, the anniversary of Aleksei’s death, I went into mourning. I was proud to wear my black shirt, declaring, as Kurtz’s Intended had said, “I—I alone know how to mourn for him as he deserves.” My historical sources said that at Aleksei’s funeral, 290 years before my first appearance in black, only a few ladies wore mourning. The others at court had been instructed not to wear mourning, as my husband had died a criminal.
I could not bear the ordinary flirtations of teenagers that June. I laughed silently at the girls who thought wearing short shorts and chatting with boys were big steps. I laughed because I was in love more deeply than any of the popular flirts. I laughed to keep the tears at bay.
The tears did not stay away. After weeks of generally happy obsession, I crashed. I crashed like a rocket burning up on re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. The impossibility of loving a dead man had finally caught up with me. It pained me that we could never marry or have children. I became convinced that my dreams of marriage were a ruse. If I knew what was good for me, I would give up this hopeless sham of a romance. I would forget Aleksei and find happiness with some ordinary, living man.
My miracle came on the evening of July 21, 2008. By some blessing of God, I was united with Aleksei in a spiritual marriage. The joy of that union burst through me like gamma radiation.
Like gamma radiation, it had lasting effects. It is almost two years after my marriage began, and I am still obsessively in love with Aleksei. I still wear on my left ring finger the plastic, silver-colored ring with intricate floral designs that I found a few days after our wedding. I still dress in the black clothes of mourning. I still dream of Aleksei, and I still feel his caress in the warm summer breeze. Even in my moments of despair, I have my love to sustain me.
Love must be obsessive if it is to be true and lasting. In our fallen state, such a love will hurt the lovers when they are separated by the hatred of the world or by their own sinfulness. Yet the pain of obsessive love is necessary. Without that pain, it would be impossible to come to perfect joy in Paradise. Aleksei and I have mourned and suffered in our earthly lives, but our heavenly life together will be perfect.
We will rise again, and love forever.
My first black shirt is smooth and pure, with short sleeves and a rounded neck. Its texture is not perfectly smooth, but the seams and ribbing are subtle enough that no one ever gets close enough to notice them. The collar is slightly raised and covers a lot of skin. Although I bought this shirt years before any of my other black clothes, its deep color has not faded. The fit has not changed either. It still contours to my body as though it were made for me.
It was my first black shirt, the one I wore when I went into mourning. I was fourteen and in love with a dead man, Aleksei. On June 26, the anniversary of his death, I stepped out in black for the first time. I stared with pleasant shock at the contrast between the black fabric and the pale apricot skin of my upper arm. The black relaxed me much more than the chill of the air conditioner in my office, where I was writing a letter to President Bush asking him to stop torturing prisoners in U.S. custody. This topic was significant to me because Aleksei had been tortured to death. My letter and my black shirt were means to the same end—honoring his memory. Loving him.
In the same drawer where I keep my first black shirt, I have many others. There is the second shirt, which I bought as a substitute for the first one so that I would not wear it out. There is the newer T-shirt with small semicircles around the sleeves and neckline. There is the three-quarter-sleeved blouse that I used to wear for orchestra concerts, and the short-sleeved shirt with a shirred neckline. I wore that shirt for my tenth-grade school picture. It made me appear beautiful and tragic, as befit a young widow. There are the plain black T-shirts that I ordered recently from L.L. Bean and that are already beginning to lose their color. There are the sleeveless shirts I ordered at the same time. They have retained their color better because the weather is rarely warm enough for me to wear them. There are the long-sleeved black shirts of varying cut and degree of fadedness. There are the colored shirts I gave up months ago but that I keep in my dresser to please my mother, who would prefer that I not love a dead man, and even more that I not wear black. There are the baby-doll shirts with the words “spring awakening” printed against a swath of dull red. The red is not inherently bright, but it stands out against the faded black of the shirt like a mountain against a plain. Spring Awakening is a musical about a young man whose girlfriend dies while carrying his unborn child. Like that man, I have lost the possibility of having children with my lover. Whenever I see a couple strolling by with their children in a brightly colored stroller, with a roof to protect the children from the sun, I wish that the couple could have been Aleksei and I.
My mother told me it was customary in Victorian times for a widow to mourn for a year and a day after her husband’s death, and then to stop. To stop, as though grief were an acute disease that lasted for so many days and then suddenly went away. Her implicit argument was that I too should give up my mourning, as it had been well over a year since Aleksei’s death. In fact, it had been almost three hundred years. He had died in 1718 at the orders of his father, Peter the Great, who considered him a traitor to Russia, his country. With my mother’s cool remark about mourning my face and neck grew warm, red like an apple against my black collar. The windowless room became darker as I remembered Aleksei’s death. With a trembling voice I told my mother that I had done my research too. In some rural areas of Latin America, widows dress in mourning for the rest of their lives.
In another drawer I have my black pants: several pairs of black jeans, some black dress pants, black athletic shorts, black chino shorts. I need these to complete my outfits, but for the most part they lack the dark beauty of my black shirts.
There is one exception to this rule. I have a pair of black jeans, size 6, that I wore on one of the best and worst days of my life. The jeans are tighter than my others, an attribute that produces a slimmer fit. Like my first black shirt, they have not lost their deep black color despite repeated washings. They have pockets with smooth gray interiors, but the texture of the jeans themselves is rough with palpable ridges. The jeans come down to my shoes, covering my legs in black fabric, so that men who wish to look me over only see an unbroken line of black from my neck to my legs.
It was June 3, a warm, bright day, but the sun’s heat did not bother me. I had told my best friend that I was in love with Aleksei, and suddenly the dim brick hallways of my school were illuminated from within, casting an unearthly glow on the parade of oblivious students walking to class. From outside my classroom window I could hear birds chirping to their mates. A gentle breeze pushed through the window, over the papers on my desk, and into my brown hair.
Then came the downpour. Rain pelted my umbrella as I walked home. My shoes crashed into puddles on the gray sidewalks, and a musty smell permeated the spring air. Cadet blue clouds shrouded the sky, glowering at the people and houses. The rain was still falling when I told my parents that I was in love with Aleksei. Unlike my friend, they realized the gravity of my claim. In a voice like a cold, smooth stone, my father told me that my love for Aleksei was unhealthy and that, if I kept it up, he would make me see a psychiatrist. Salty tears fell from my eyes onto my favorite black jeans.
In my closet I store all the black clothes that won’t fit into my dresser drawers. There is my black parka for snowy days, and stiff jackets that I wear for formal events. There are black sweatshirts that I throw over a red or purple shirt to give the illusion of wearing color to my mother. There are more pants and more shorts, and skirts of all shapes and styles. There are casual skirts, some with pockets, all made of cotton. There is a dressy skirt with a netted rose pattern over a plain sheath. There are skirts that are reserved for special occasions because they are made of silk or wool. There are dresses, too. A few are informal enough that I wear them around the house or to school. These ones are short-sleeved plain dresses with a smooth, durable texture. There are fancier dresses that I only wear to church or academic events. Many of them are suited for winter, with their thick fabric and long sleeves.
I have three copies of my favorite black dress. It straddles the border between casual and formal because its cotton composition and durability come into contrast with its cost and its elegant maker, Eileen Fisher. It is cut like a ballet leotard, with a scoop neckline, cap sleeves, and a flowing skirt. Sometimes I dance in it like a ballerina. I rise onto demi-pointe and leap and pirouette across the reddish brown carpet of my living room. But leap as I might, I never make it beyond the living room windows with their colorful drawn curtains.
Black usually comforts me, but if I think too much about why I am in mourning, a hurricane rises up in my stomach and my hands and legs tremble. I imagine Aleksei dressed in black, waiting terrified for his interrogation. I imagine him writhing in agony as a whip rips the skin off of his back. I imagine his tormentors taking down his body, weak and stained with blood, from the gallows where he was tortured.
These are among my worst memories, and they are not even my memories.
There is one item in my wardrobe that is not black. It is my plastic, silver-colored wedding ring. Its shape is more like a many-sided polygon than a circle. Raised on its surface are abstract patterns that can be interpreted as flowers, hearts, eyes, or scribbles. It hugs my finger with the perfect fit I associate with my favorite pieces of clothing. Whenever my grief starts to overwhelm me, I look down at my left ring finger and see my silver ring. I remember that Aleksei and I love each other, that we are spiritually married, and that we will be together in Heaven.
When I step outside, the breeze ruffles through my hair, and the sun beats down relentlessly on my absorbent black clothes. But the sun also shines on my silver ring. The light of the heavens reflects off my ring finger, sending my messages of love up to Heaven and Aleksei.
Today I was at the Publix grocery store picking out a bottle of laundry detergent with my mother. Bottled corrosion, bottled amnesia for under five dollars if you buy the house brand. I stay away from the washing machine just like I stay away from the stove and the oven, not because I’m young enough for these things to kill me accidently, nor even because I am liable to use them to kill myself, but because I’m lazy. I heard on the radio how Bruno Mars has given up praising women and catching grenades for them. Now he’s too lazy even for sex. That might be a fair decision for someone happy and successful, but laziness for me is of the garden depressive variety. I don’t want to do laundry, so I leave it to my mother, who makes dinner and cleans the bathroom in addition to teaching at a local college. I don’t want to take out the garbage or do the dishes, so I leave that to my father, who manages to work from nine to five-thirty every weekday even though he has the same mental illness I have.
I used to make a big deal to myself of being functional. In middle school, I was the little violinist who brought joy to people’s lives through her music even though she was usually miserable. Later, I graduated into the role of the unhappy high school student with stellar grades and a secret love. After I betrayed my secret, I became the teenage widow, wise beyond her years, mourning for her soul mate, waiting for the Second Coming with the rest of the elect—and somehow managing to stay at the top of her class.
I dreamed of death almost every day, but you cannot blame Aleksei, my dead lover, for this morbid ideation. For one thing, most sane people, religious or not, would agree that no Aleksei Petrovich Romanov loved me. Somehow, though, my parents and my peers and the mental health professionals who treated me managed to blame him for hurting me. Only in the days immediately following my suicide attempt did I often hear the words, “You made a bad decision.” The words did not register much because I was still confident that my suicide attempt was the most virtuous action a woman in my position could have taken. I only wished that I had been successful.
Too bad. Soon enough I stopped loving Aleksei, and yet for over a month I pretended to myself that I was more content than ever because he was no longer in my life. Sometimes it takes a while for a loss to register. Sometimes gangrene can grow in your heart without your even realizing it. And sometimes you can imagine that you have an acute infection, and perhaps even be diagnosed with an infection, when all you really have is chronic pain. Take this example: I had a rash on my upper body. My primary care doctor told me I had fungal dermatitis and prescribed an anti-fungal cream. Later I saw a dermatologist, and he told me that all I was having was an outbreak of psoriasis, a chronic skin condition. It was nice to get a prescription from him for a cream that worked, but it was disappointing to lose the easy enemy of the fungus. When parasites take over your heart, you can at least blame them. When the only agents of your pain are you and a faceless, partially genetic defect in you, it is harder to find anyone other than yourself to blame, and self-hatred grows tiresome after a while.
If I ever learned how to swim and tried out my newfound skills in the River Lethe, I would probably find its waters blue and slippery like detergent. As I strolled along its foul banks in my floral swimsuit, I would probably find a sign that read, “Warning! Swimming in this river can cause memory loss. Hades Beach cannot be held responsible for injury or death that results from swimming here.” Maybe there would be other signs around with warnings such as, “Caution! Waters not intended for ophthalmic use,” or “If accidental ingestion occurs, call Poison Control Center immediately.” All these warnings are a load of bullshit anyway. Poison Control Center has no need to treat the bodies of those who are drunk on bleach-free detergent, and neither a psychotherapist nor an exorcist nor God himself could heal the souls of those unfortunate inebriated.
In tenth-grade Health I learned the approximate amount of alcohol that the body can process in an hour. My teacher’s point was to illustrate the body’s sluggishness in processing alcohol. At the moment, the knowledge has the opposite effect on me. I see that the body is capable of processing alcohol, and ultimately, unless the drunken man is fortunate enough to die, the alcohol will leave his system, and he will continue with his life. I am not so lucky. The detergent left my body in the middle of July 2010, but the hole it burned in my soul will last as long as I live, or so I think now.
Elliptical Orbits and Human Relationships
In his first law of planetary motion, Johannes Kepler states that “the orbits of the planets are ellipses, with the Sun at one focus of the ellipse.” The discovery that the orbits of the planets around the sun, and the moons around the planets, are elliptical challenged the Ptolemaic belief that the orbits of the heavenly bodies were perfectly circular because the heavenly bodies themselves were perfect. Kepler’s laws indicated that the orbits of the heavenly bodies were imperfect.
Kepler’s first law applies to human relationships as well and helps explain some of the imperfections in these relationships. An ideal relationship is a Ptolemaic circular orbit, in which one woman loves only one man, and vice versa. The woman becomes a planet orbiting the man, who is like the sun. Her orbit is a perfect circle because she loves only him. The orbit could also be reversed, with the man orbiting the woman, but to avoid confusion and to fit most of the examples, this essay will describe the men as similar to suns and the women as similar to planets.
An example of a perfect circular orbit is found in the relationship between Romeo and Juliet in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Romeo and Juliet love each other so much that when they cannot be together, they kill themselves. Romeo compares Juliet to “the sun,” suggesting that his love is perfectly concentrated on her (2.2.3). The simile is apt because Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet prior to the publication of Kepler’s laws, when the Ptolemaic view of circular orbits still held. If Juliet is the sun, then Romeo’s devotion to her appears as a perfect circular orbit to Shakespeare’s audience. Juliet reveals her devotion to and dependence on Romeo in the words, “No man like he doth grieve my heart” (3.5.83). Juliet’s love for Romeo gives him the capacity to hurt her by going away. His death hurts her enough that she kills herself because she cannot live without him, and earlier, when he thinks she is dead, he kills himself too.
Romeo and Juliet provide an ideal of romantic devotion, but their behavior is abnormal. Most people gradually lose their love for one person, especially if that person goes away or dies. For most people, devotion is an ellipse, in which the true love, like the sun, is at one focus, and other potential mates are at the other, invisible focus. The foci of an elliptical orbit are points around which the planet or satellite orbits. The orbit is defined both by the sun and by the invisible focus opposite the sun.
An example of a romantic relationship that resembles an elliptical orbit is found in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. Troilus and Criseyde are two Trojans who fall in love, but are separated when Criseyde is forced to go to the enemy Greek camp. There, Criseyde encounters Diomedes, a Greek who persists in courting her until he wins her love, thus making her unfaithful to Troilus. Troilus is like the sun because he is Criseyde’s true love. Chaucer describes her as “his owen herte swete,” and Criseyde shows by her positive response to Troilus’ love that she feels the same way about him (3.1820). Diomedes is like the invisible focus because he does not love Criseyde as much as Troilus does, but he takes care of her and ends up with her.
Another romantic relationship that resembles an elliptical orbit is found in Stephenie Meyer’s novels New Moon and Eclipse. In New Moon, Bella’s true love Edward leaves her, causing her to seek solace with another young man, Jacob. Jacob causes Bella’s devotion to Edward to waver because Bella misses Edward less when she is with Jacob. Bella says of Jacob, “I needed Jacob now, needed him like a drug” (219). This simile shows how Bella needs Jacob to drive away the despair that haunts her after Edward leaves. In the course of using Jacob to make herself feel better, Bella goes “deeper than [she’d] planned to go with anyone again” (219). She does not want to fall in love with him, but nevertheless she does because her attraction to him is so powerful, and he makes her feel good about herself and her world.
In Eclipse, Edward returns, but Bella is still attracted to Jacob. She convinces Jacob to kiss her, an event about which Edward finds out. Edward is characterized as kind and understanding because he does not get mad at Bella for kissing Jacob. Instead, he explains that the reason she kissed Jacob was because she loves him. Bella tells Edward, “I love you more” (534). This exchange reveals Bella’s dilemma. Edward is her true love, her sun, but she is also attracted to Jacob, the invisible focus of her elliptical orbit. Bella and Edward’s love is strong enough to keep them together despite her attraction to Jacob, but the love she and Jacob share is not strong enough to bring them together. Bella calls Jacob her “personal sun,” who drives away the clouds for her life (600). Jacob tells her, “The clouds I can handle. But I can’t fight with an eclipse” (600). Although Meyer’s use of astronomical metaphors is different from the one set forth in this essay, the basic concept is the same: a woman often loves more than one man at once, and this causes pain both to the woman and to the men she loves. This pattern is so common that it is reflected in the orbits of planets in the cosmos.
Popular music also expresses the way in which romantic relationships resemble elliptical orbits. The song “All I Have” by the Veronicas addresses the difficulty of loving an absent man and the guilt the singer feels after seeking love with another, more available man. The song begins, “I was missing you / You were miles away / He was close to me / I let him stay.” The singer goes on to describe how the guilt she feels after her relationship with the new man is destroying her relationship with her original lover. Rihanna’s “Unfaithful” describes a woman who loves a man such that “he’s more than a man / And this is more than love / The reason that the sky is blue.” However, her attraction to another man causes her to be unfaithful to her true love. This proves that even a deep love can be interrupted by a second focus, or another man.
Many people encourage the search for a new lover after the first lover leaves or dies. This encouragement is shown by the existence of dating organizations for widows and widowers and by songs such as Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” In this song, the singer tells the man who abandoned her that “as long as I know how to love I know I’ll stay alive.” She will search for a new lover rather than holding on to the memory of her old lover. Searching for a new mate allows a person to have a chance at a happy relationship even if the previous relationship ended unhappily.
Society criticizes prolonged grief for a relationship that has ended, but it also criticizes the behavior of women like Criseyde and Bella as unfaithful to their true loves. Many teenage girls identify themselves as “Team Edward” rather than “Team Jacob,” indicating that they want Bella to end up with Edward and possibly do not approve of the way she expresses romantic interest in Jacob. Criseyde has a worse reputation than Bella, who ends up with Edward, whereas Criseyde ends up with Diomedes and not Troilus. For centuries, Criseyde has epitomized feminine fickleness and infidelity. In his Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare proclaims, “[let] all false women [be called] Cressids” (3.2.201). Criseyde is deeply in love with Troilus for a while, but her love is forgotten because she is remembered only for betraying Troilus and loving Diomedes instead, which characterizes her as cruel and fickle. In Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, Criseyde challenges this characterization by her initial behavior in the Greek camp, where she is “in hire penes stronge for love of Troilus, hire owen knyght” (5.864-865). Even when Criseyde finally accepts Diomedes’ advances, she does so in part because she is lonely and needs someone to support her and make her happier.
Chaucer’s Criseyde is a complex woman who struggles with love, loneliness, and guilt. Her dilemma of whether to yield to Diomedes’ advances is universal because many people will have to face the loss of a lover and the question of whether to love someone else who is not as compatible as the first lover but who is more available. Criseyde makes the choice that many people make: to find a new lover without completely forgetting the old one. She proves that devotion is an elliptical orbit, with a true love at one focus, like the sun, and other potential mates at the other, invisible focus. It is in human nature to yield to the internal and external pressure to start a new romance after the loss or death of a lover. However, the person who yields is unfaithful both to her old lover and her new one because she cannot devote herself to either of them completely. The ancients were right. The ideal orbit is a spherical one, in which a single man and woman love each other.
What Geometrical Figure Best Describes the Nature of Human Love?
Many people would like to believe in monogamy. In other words, they might answer the question posed in the title of this essay with the phrase, “a line segment, or perhaps a circle.” Other, more adventurous types, might suggest that love best approximates a triangle, or even a pentagon. Those who reject love as yet another bourgeois institution might call it a square, and those who associate love with jewelry advertisements might call it a diamond, or technically a rhombus.
But, in all seriousness, what geometrical figure is best suited to describe human love? I believe that the answer is an ellipse. An ellipse is a geometrical figure that falls between the extremes of a circle and a line. It can be defined by its two foci. The smaller the distance between the foci, the more circular and less eccentric the ellipse. Tellingly, the English word “ellipse” comes from the Greek elleipein “to fall short.” An ellipse falls short of both a line segment and a circle. In doing so, it falls short of our expectations for what constitutes a neat geometric shape.
Love, like an ellipse, is messy. Very few people go through life only loving one person. Often, a person is in love with multiple people at one time. The best example of elliptical love that I know of is the love Criseyde experiences in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. At first, she is in love with Troilus, a Trojan prince, but when external circumstances force her to leave Troilus and go to the Greek camp, she falls in love with the Greek warrior Diomedes. For centuries, Criseyde has been villainized as unfaithful and even cruel. However, her predicament more accurately represents the romantic situation that most people face than the pure and undying love of a Romeo or Juliet. Criseyde has to choose between two lovers, and ultimately she chooses Diomedes, the man who is closer to her and whom it is more convenient to love. Naturally, her decision hurts both her and Troilus, but such is the consequence of love in an imperfect world.
Johannes Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion state that the orbits of the planets are ellipses, in which the sun is at one focus and an invisible point constitutes the other focus. As a person travels through the orbit of his life, he will encounter many lovers. At every point, he will be closer to some than to others. Thus his romantic experience can be construed as an ellipse in which his position relative to his love objects is constantly changing. The elliptical nature of love is neither a virtue nor a vice; rather, it is a morally neutral characteristic of the way in which humans interact.
Walking: A Creative Act
When I go for a walk, I often think about fiction that I am writing. There is something about the force of the wind in my hair, the steady rhythm of my feet on the pavement, and the relative isolation of the sidewalks in my suburban town that lends itself to the development of characters and plot. I am so accustomed to the paths I travel that I can easily think about the world I am creating without losing sight of the world I inhabit.
At the moment, I am writing a historical novel. It is set in the seventeenth century in a fictional country that I created. The protagonist, Isabel, is the intelligent and darkly passionate mother of the young king of this nation. The novel focuses on both the politics associated with running a country and maintaining control over it as well as the loneliness and anguish that can plague a national leader, or for that matter any person of sufficient depth.
When I walk through the quiet streets of my suburban hometown, I transport myself to the dark and beautiful world I have created. The contrast between my ordinary walk and my extraordinary fiction allows me to see new character traits and potential plot developments. I do not necessarily use the ideas I contemplate while walking, but either way, they increase my understanding of my fiction and myself.
Fiction is not the only thing I think about while I am walking. When I was in the process of developing a way to rewrite the sine and cosine of integral multiples of angles in terms of the sine and cosine of the single angle, I made much of my progress on this matter while walking. By the time I got home and was able to test my assertions out with paper and calculator, I had already been thinking about the problem for a long time.
I also like walking because it allows me to listen to music. I listen to a variety of music, including Evanescence and Paramore, the Beatles, current popular music, and classical music. When I listen to music, I connect the lyrics and the melodies to my own life, to the fiction I am writing, and to subjects I am studying in school and independently. When it rains, I cannot listen to music, but there is something beautifully appealing about the rain. Like so much of the universe, it has a dual nature. On the one hand, it causes a nuisance and can be disheartening, and yet without it, life could not exist on Earth.
Such are the thoughts that fly through my mind while I am walking.
On an unassuming August morning, I dressed myself in a black lace-colored blouse, a grayish denim skirt, and a pair of comfortable black ballet flats and caught the 10:24 local train from my hometown along the Hudson River into Manhattan. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I wandered through replicas of eighteenth-century British parlors and fixed my atheist’s eyes on a plain ivory crucifix. Suddenly I needed to walk out into the heat and reality of Manhattan streets, so I exchanged my teal museum tag for the teal sky. In the clean Florida Starbucks where I sit writing this essay, surrounded by petulant teenagers returning from their first day of school, I long for the twin poles of beauty that clung to either side of the museum door.
I walked down Lexington Avenue to Grand Central, but I did not enter it. Instead, I headed into Times Square, passing businessmen, Elmo, and confused tourists. I made a detour to the office building on the West Side where my father works and walked down the block where the tragic Spring Awakening had been replaced by the lighter Book of Mormon. I passed Colony Music, where I had purchased concertos in minor keys in the days when the violin had the power to make me cry.
I had walked four miles, but my black ballet flats compelled me to keep walking just as Victoria Page’s red shoes had compelled her to dance into the path of an approaching train. I passed Columbus Circle, where I had once shopped with my mother, and strolled around Lincoln Center, where earlier that summer I had seen Yekaterina Kondaurova dance the title role in Anna Karenina and had wondered whether any of the School of American Ballet students walking cheerfully towards the Juilliard dormitories would ever dance the role of an adulterous and suicidal heroine.
I walked uptown along Broadway for two more miles. On street corners, downtrodden men sold romance novels and beat-up vinyl records, and pigeons clustered around food carts in an eternal struggle for survival. For the first and last time that summer, all the meaning in the world was contained in the grimy city sidewalks and the voluptuous white clouds that would soon turn gray and plague us with rain. Soon I, too, would relinquish my joy, pack myself into a crowded subway, and return to my suburban obligations. Yet I knew that night, as I stared at the desolate grandeur of the Hudson on my way home, that I would embrace the glory of suffering that manifested itself in a crucifix crafted from virgin ivory, in the trains that crush self-destructive lovers, and in the scarlet rays of sunset that inevitably drown in the black sky.
Behind the mask of human civilization lies a savage ape. Man and chimpanzee alike have evolved from a primate ancestor, so that man’s closest living relative is the chimpanzee. Chimpanzee mating rituals reflect their traits of promiscuity and violence. The males fight, sometimes with deadly consequences, to determine who can mate with the females. The winner of the fight not only gets the female, but he also earns a higher rank in the elaborate hierarchy of the chimpanzee males. The alpha male enjoys the greatest mating privileges as well as power over the other males.
The laws of human civilization prop up a system similar to the chimpanzee hierarchy, in which the strongest and richest dominate over the lower classes. Historically, laws have often reflected the inequality between the upper and lower classes. An early example of such laws is found in Hammurabi’s Code, an ancient Babylonian legal document. These laws prescribe different penalties for a rich man and a poor man who commit the same crime, with the harsher penalty falling on the latter. Subsequent societies, including Rome and medieval Europe, also punished the poor more harshly than the rich and gave fewer legal protections to the poor. The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century gave widespread expression to the concept of equality under the law. Modern western democracies theoretically adhere to this concept, although in America minority and poor defendants are more likely to face punishment than their wealthy white counterparts, and that punishment is likely to be harsher.
Government is part of a system in which the strong oppress the weak under a veil of legal sanction. True anarchy destroys both laws and the government that creates and enforces them. There is disagreement within the anarchist community as to the reasons to remove law and government. One argument is that laws curtail freedom. If, as the Declaration of Independence asserts, men are born with the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” then nobody, not even government, should take those rights away. Laws limit liberty because they limit the actions that men are allowed to take. The anarchist may assert optimistically that men can make acceptable decisions without laws to govern their behavior, or he may take the more cynical view that men are innately evil and that government, as a human institution, gives greater expression to that evil than anarchy. Another argument against laws is that they are inherently unfair because they are moral opinions of the ruling classes that are imposed on the masses. It is violence or the threat of violence that causes citizens to obey the laws and punishes them for disobedience. The government does not take into account that the citizens may disagree with the ethical views expressed by the laws. Moreover, the government acts hypocritically by setting laws against murder, kidnapping, and theft, but executing, imprisoning, and confiscating the property of its citizens as punishment for breaking the laws.
Government is inherently violent because it relies on violence or the threat of violence to enforce its laws. By paying taxes to and supporting the government, citizens implicitly partake in the government’s violence. Anarchism is the political system most compatible with pacifism because anarchism denies the need for an army or police force to protect society. Support of government implies that peace is not possible without some preventive and retaliatory violence, but pacifist anarchism suggests that peace is possible without any violence.
Although many anarchists are pacifists, some anarchists believe that violence is necessary to overthrow government and create anarchy. Historically, most political revolutions, including the French and Russian Revolutions, have relied on violence to bring about change in government. Even William and Mary were backed up by the threat of force when they took over English government peacefully in the Glorious Revolution. The popular link between anarchism and violence is strengthened by images such as that of the bomb-throwing anarchist, to which there is some truth. Some anarchists have used violence to attack society. Anarchists who neither use violence nor write popular texts about their beliefs are unlikely to be noticed by the general population. Violence is a conspicuous and somewhat effective method for anarchists to express their dissatisfaction with government and the society that surrounds it.
If free-market capitalism is taken to its extremes, the result is economic and often political anarchy. Laws concerning property and business become void if men are to carry on their economic affairs without government interference. A government that has no control over property, which is a marker of human status, is unlikely to have much power over other human affairs. Also, people inclined to believe in man’s right to economic freedom are also likely to believe in his right to personal freedom. Libertarian political beliefs promote a system in which government plays as minimal a role as possible in both personal and economic affairs. When the government’s role is completely dissolved, the result is capitalist anarchy.
Yet anarchism is also compatible with socialism or communism. Communism as an economic system is characterized by the lack of classes and private property. According to John Locke, one of the purposes of government is to protect individual property. Without government to protect it, individual property is harder to maintain. The original Marxist philosophy envisions a stateless society, which implies that countries would be destroyed at the advent of communism. Marx and Engels argued that countries were artificial boundaries imposed by the ruling classes to divide the proletariat and prevent a revolution. Anarchism and communism have been more formally combined by later philosophers, including Peter Kropotkin in his pamphlet “Anarchism Communism: Its Basis and Principles.” This document suggests that anarchism, the “no-government form of socialism,” is the fittest form of economic and political organization to promote human health and development.
Anarchism has traditionally been associated with atheism. This is partly due to the popular association between nation and God. Anarchists, who reject the dominance of government, are also inclined to reject the authority of God or organized religion. The Marxist view of history, which has influenced modern anarchism, suggests that religion and morality are artificial constraints imposed on the masses to control them. Marx and Engels referred to religion as the “opiate of the masses,” suggesting that religion is untrue. Nihilism, which denies meaning to various aspects of human existence, and which is popular among anarchists for its unfavorable view of government, also influences anarchists to be atheists.
However, Christian anarchism also has a rich tradition. Anarchism is compatible with socialism and pacifism, both of which are ideals espoused by the New Testament. Acts of the Apostles states that the early disciples shared all of their belongings in common, and the Gospels instruct Christians to “turn the other cheek” to enemies who attack them. A prominent group of Christian anarchists exist at the Catholic Worker. Founded by Dorothy Day, the Catholic Worker seeks to bridge the gap between the rich and poor through voluntary poverty and daily acts of mercy. Many of the people involved in the Catholic Worker are anarchists who want to overthrow the United States government through peaceful revolution and bring about a society of small-scale agricultural communities in which each gives according to his ability and receives according to his need. The workers try to bring about this revolution through protests, not paying taxes, and sharing their lives with the poor. Although its membership is largely Catholic, the Worker has also attracted non-Catholics, including Protestants, Jews, and atheists.
I associate anarchism with the winds of spring and summer. When I feel these winds, it does not matter how relentless the sun’s heat or how inane the chatter of my companions. The wind caresses my face, suggesting a gentle, peaceful change, yet powerful enough to blow away the fences and borders that divide us.
Intention versus Instinct in Heart of Darkness
Man is unique among the animals in that he is capable of conscious intention. It is his capacity for creating and realizing plans that has enabled him to build monuments, write books, wage wars, and exert power over other animals. Yet no amount of human progress can erase the stamp of animal instinct that lingers in the body and spirit of every man and woman. Through its depiction of Kurtz, a European ivory trader in late-nineteenth-century Africa, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness plumbs the depths of the human soul and reveals the dark desires that abide there. Kurtz personifies the conflict between intention and instinct, a conflict that is central to the novel’s narrative and thematic content. In Heart of Darkness, Kurtz reveals his inner conflict between intention and instinct through his pursuit of ivory, his writings, and his spoken words.
Kurtz is driven to Africa by contradictory desires. He wants to help the natives, but he also wants to take their ivory. His desire for money compels him to exploit the native peoples, but money is by no means the primary cause of his moral downfall. His unhappy state results from more sinister impulses than material greed. He longs to devour not only the material treasures of the natives, but rather their entire beings. Even after Kurtz is dead, Marlow, the narrator, has a vision of him “opening his mouth voraciously, as if to devour all the earth with all its mankind” (68). For Kurtz, ivory symbolizes the best and worst things possibly within his grasp—in other words, the extremes of the world. It is pride that gives him his lofty ideas and his overestimation of his own capacity for virtue, and it is pride that leads him down the course of exploitation and mounting human heads on the stakes around his house. The head represents the center of a person’s intellectual and emotional activities, so Kurtz’s grotesque display of human heads indicates both his contempt for the people around him and his desire to be surrounded by symbols of the intellect, consciousness, and individuality. He is fascinated with the higher functions of the intellect even as gentleness and virtue slip out of his grasp.
Kurtz’s report on how to improve the native peoples provides further evidence for his inner conflict between intention and instinct. He writes this report for the International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs. The text itself, beginning with the opening paragraph, appears ominous to Marlow because he understands the hatred simmering beneath the beautiful words. Kurtz declares that Europeans appear like “supernatural beings” to the natives because the Europeans belong to a more developed civilization (45). Marlow associates this proclamation with the way Kurtz has trained the natives to look on him as a god, and to dedicate “unspeakable rites” to him (45). Kurtz initially wants to use his influence over the natives for good, but he soon takes advantage of them and uses his power to harmful effect. However, the most striking evidence for Kurtz’s inner struggle that the report gives can be seen in a note written at the end of the last pages. The note reads, “Exterminate all the brutes!” (46). Kurtz cannot make himself believe in the benevolence that he advocates in his treatise. The outpouring of altruism from his soul disgusts him to the point where he must condemn both his sentiment and the native people at which it is directed. Kurtz is torn between his desire to do good and his hatred of the people he wants to help.
Kurtz expresses his despair and disgust at the world most powerfully in his last words: “The horror! The horror!” (64). The simplicity of this exclamation, which does not even constitute a sentence, shows the way in which Kurtz’s benevolent intentions have reverted to dark instinct. He learns to ignore the trappings of civilization, such as notions of helping the less fortunate and sharing one’s customs with others. He sees through the fog of these ideas and into the core of the human soul. Virtuous intention is present throughout Marlow’s superficial interactions with people in Europe, but Kurtz’s character and words prove that instinct reigns triumphant in the human soul.
In Heart of Darkness, Kurtz personifies the conflict between intention and instinct through his quest for ivory, his report, and his last words. The resolution to his conflict is uncertain. He dies affirming the horror of man and his world, so it seems that instinct reigns triumphant in his life. Yet there persist in the form of his grieving Intended his virtuous ideals and his capacity for love. The Intended shows that depth need not be limited to darkness, and that while love cannot completely triumph over cruelty, it is still a formidable adversary to man’s darker instincts.
Perceptive Madness in Hamlet and Ophelia
Madness offers its possessor unique insights into the nature of the world. However, these insights are often accompanied by irrationality and emotional pain. These unpleasant aspects are as essential to madness as is the unique perceptivity that it brings. For centuries, western civilization has cited confusion and pain as two defining characteristics of madness, so it is easy to lose sight of insanity’s stimulating effects on intelligence and creativity.
William Shakespeare’s Hamlet explores both the unique perception and the suffering associated with madness, as well as its underlying causes, through the madness of Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, and of Ophelia, the object of Hamlet’s affections. Hamlet and Ophelia experience both the beneficial and the destructive effects of madness. Their insanity is triggered by a combination of sudden trauma, long-term problems, and innate tendencies. In Hamlet, both Hamlet and Ophelia suffer from a perceptive madness, which is caused by their grief at their fathers’ deaths, their disappointments in love, their sensitive intelligence, and their reaction to the horror of the world.
II. Grief at Their Fathers’ Deaths
The sudden trauma that triggers Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s madness is the unexpected deaths of their fathers, and as a result their madness is marked by grief for their fathers. The sudden death of Polonius, Ophelia’s father, immediately plunges her into overt madness, whereas Hamlet’s madness develops slowly and subtly from his grief at his father’s death. People close to both Hamlet and Ophelia suspect that their madness is brought on by their fathers’ deaths. When Polonius tells Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, that he has found the cause of her son’s strange behavior, she replies that the cause is “no other but the main, his father’s death and our [Gertrude and Claudius’] o’erhasty marriage” (2.2.56-57). She assumes that her marriage upsets Hamlet because it represents a rejection of her grief and acceptance of a new lover, Claudius.
Hamlet wants his mother to share in his grief and criticizes her for remarrying so quickly, referring to her “most wicked speed” in “post[ing] with such dexterity to incestuous sheets” (1.2.156-157). Not only does he criticize Gertrude and Claudius’ marriage for having occurred too quickly after Hamlet’s father’s death, but he condemns it as incestuous because Claudius is the brother of Hamlet’s father. Hamlet’s grief at his father’s death, combined with his disgust at his mother’s remarriage, throws him into a state of depression with the potential for madness.
Claudius, the king of Denmark and Hamlet’s uncle, concludes that Ophelia’s madness is the “poison of deep grief” (4.5.76). The metaphor of poison suggests that grief, like poison, can destroy a person’s health and even his life. In Ophelia’s case, the metaphor holds true because after her father’s death, she loses her good health by immediately and conspicuously becoming insane. This reaction suggests that her father’s death played a large role in her going insane.
Hamlet is also deeply affected by his father’s death, but his reaction to the death is more gradual and subtle than Ophelia’s reaction to Polonius’ death. While Ophelia’s insane grief is so crippling that she can no longer function normally, Hamlet is still able to function normally in court life, at least for the first several weeks after his father’s death. However, Hamlet appears dressed in black and with a “dejected havior of the visage” that provokes concern and reprimand from Gertrude and Claudius (1.2.81). They criticize him for not ceasing his mourning and argue that he should accept his father’s death because death is a natural part of life. Nevertheless, they do not consider Hamlet insane until after his father’s ghost tells him that Claudius murdered him.
The news of the murder triggers a desire for revenge in Hamlet. His grief, which until this point consisted mostly of melancholy and sorrow, is transformed into anger. As part of his plan to take revenge on Claudius, Hamlet puts on an “antic disposition,” or a mad guise (1.5.181). At this point Hamlet’s family and friends believe he has gone insane. They are partially correct. Although Hamlet is playing at madness, he is acting on the grief and anger already within him to supply the inspiration for his mad guise. He tells Gertrude before his meeting with the ghost, “I have that within which passes show; these but the trappings and the suits of woe” (1.2.85-86). Hamlet’s external show of madness, real or feigned, is an imperfect representation of the grief and anger he feels inside.
One way Hamlet and Ophelia express their grief at their fathers’ deaths is through their ruminations on death. These ruminations are sometimes muddled and irrational, but they offer insights into Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s grief and into the character of death itself. Hamlet makes one such comment to Ophelia, remarking, “[L]ook you how cheerfully my mother looks, and my father died within’s two hours” (3.2.124-125). This statement is incorrect, as Ophelia points out, because Hamlet’s father has already been dead for a few months. However, it reveals that from Hamlet’s point of view, it seems as though his father died very recently. As a result, Hamlet cannot understand how his mother can seem so happy when her husband has just died and she, like Hamlet, should still be mourning.
In this exchange, Hamlet also expresses hope that “a great man’s memory may outlive his life half a year” (3.2.129-130). Perhaps Hamlet speaks these words with a mocking, sardonic tone, because from his perspective, Claudius, Gertrude, and the rest of the court have nearly forgotten about Hamlet’s father, and are carrying on as though he has not recently died. Hamlet’s sardonic tone indicates that he feels that a great man should be remembered after his death, and that his family’s lack of grief indicates a moral weakness on their part. Hamlet believes that his deep grief is an appropriate reaction to the loss of his father, and not the “unmanly grief” of which Claudius accuses him (1.2.94). Hamlet’s somewhat irrational comments about his father’s death indicate the depth and immediacy of his grief and his bitterness at how Claudius, Gertrude, and the other members of the court seem to have forgotten about Hamlet’s father and are not mourning him.
Ophelia also makes mad but insightful remarks that reveal the depth of her grief and her perception of death. She displays her madness in the songs she sings, many of which have to do with death. She sings these songs out of context and seemingly without cause or reason. When Gertrude asks her, “[W]hat imports this song?”, Ophelia responds by singing another song (4.5.27). This shows that she is detached from reality and better able to express her grief through fragments of songs rather than through rational speech. The lyrics “Larded with sweet flowers; which bewept to the ground did not go with true-love showers” reveal that Ophelia is thinking about death and specifically the mourning practices associated with death (4.5.38-40). This imagery vividly conveys these mourning practices, which, though lugubrious, offer comfort to Ophelia because they provide her a way to remember her father. Like Hamlet, Ophelia does not wish to forget the memory of the dead. She is disturbed by thought that her father is no longer alive with her on earth, as shown by the lyrics that question, “And will ’a not come again?” (4.5.193). Ophelia is in shock and cannot quite believe that she will not see her father again. Through the loss of her father, Ophelia comes to the painful realization that death is sudden and absolute. The immediate experience of losing someone she loves leads Ophelia both to madness and to a greater comprehension of death.
After his father’s death, Hamlet also ruminates on the nature of death and the insignificance that it gives to human life. Hamlet expresses his beliefs about death through cagey, visceral remarks. These remarks are part of what leads other people to believe that Hamlet is crazy. He consciously uses these remarks to try to appear crazy, but they are also true reflections of Hamlet’s thoughts about death.
When Claudius inquires about the location of Polonius’ corpse, Hamlet replies that Polonius is “at supper,” where worms are eating him (4.3.17). Hamlet proceeds to describe how men fatten themselves only to be eaten by worms after their death. His visceral, irrational imagery reveals his pessimistic view of human life. Hamlet believes that however significant a person may be in life, his actions will be rendered futile by his death. Hamlet alludes to Alexander, a Macedonian ruler who conquered much of the ancient Near East, in his broodings on death before Ophelia’s funeral. He concludes that even a great man like Alexander dies, leaving a corpse that is nothing but dirt. These conclusions are influenced by Hamlet’s observations of how his mother and his uncle have forgotten his father, who in life had “an eye like Mars to threaten and command” (3.4.58). This simile alludes to the Greek god of war and implies that Hamlet’s father was powerful and respected during his life.
Both Hamlet and Ophelia recognize and are disturbed by the cruel irony in the way their dead fathers, and the dead in general, lose their power and are soon forgotten. Their insanity allows them to fight this irony through persistent grief over the dead, whereas saner characters like Claudius and Gertrude stop mourning after a short period of time. Both Hamlet and Ophelia’s madness is triggered by the sudden trauma of their fathers’ deaths. Their grief at their father’s madness and the disturbing but perceptive thoughts on death that accompany it are an essential part of Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s madness.
III. Disappointments in Love
Another cause of Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s madness is their disappointments in love. This cause is a more gradual, long-term cause of their madness than is their grief at the sudden deaths of their fathers. Hamlet and Ophelia love each other, but external circumstances cause them to tear apart their relationship. One major factor tearing them apart is that each sees the other as unattainable. Hamlet is of a higher social status than Ophelia, so her family does not want her to be with him. Polonius tells Claudius that he told Ophelia, “Lord Hamlet is a prince out of thy star” (2.2.141). This means that Hamlet’s status as royalty precludes any acceptable romantic relationship between him and Ophelia, who is of a lower social status than Hamlet. Ophelia follows her father’s advice and tries to spurn Hamlet’s affections. This causes her pain because she loves Hamlet, but she wants to be obedient to her father and brother, whom she also loves. Ophelia believes her father and brother that Hamlet’s status as a prince makes him socially unattainable for her. Ophelia rejects the “tenders” of Hamlet’s “affection,” as her father commands her to do (1.3.100-101). But she cannot prevent herself from loving Hamlet. Ophelia’s internal conflict over whether to accept Hamlet’s love, especially in light of his insanity, or to follow the rational advice of her father and brother, is one force that ultimately drives her to madness.
Hamlet also sees Ophelia as unattainable, but for different reasons than hers. Hamlet’s family does not forbid his love for Ophelia, nor is Ophelia of a higher social status than him. He limits his love himself because he sees Ophelia as morally superior to him. This view is influenced by Hamlet’s low opinion of himself. His depressed mood contributes to his view of himself as sinful and cowardly. Hamlet calls himself “a dull and muddy-mettled rascal” (2.2.567). In contrast, he sees Ophelia as beautiful and pure. His letter to Ophelia refers to her as “the celestial and my soul’s idol,” and one of his conversations with her begins with his words, “Nymph, in thy orisons be all my sins remembered” (2.2.109-110; 3.1.90-91). These words reveal that Hamlet views Ophelia as an exalted being. As a result, he is unsure of how to love Ophelia. He chooses to be cruel to her because he is jealous of the goodness and innocence he perceives in her. He thinks there is no way for him to be good enough for her, so sometimes he does not try to treat her well.
It is ironic that both Hamlet and Ophelia think that the other is too good for him or her. Their lofty views of one another, and their feelings of their comparable unworthiness, make it difficult for Hamlet and Ophelia to have a satisfying romantic relationship.
This disappointing romantic relationship contributes to Ophelia’s and Hamlet’s madness. Loving Hamlet takes on a forbidden character for Ophelia. She fears the effect this love will have on her reputation, especially in light of Hamlet’s sometimes bawdy treatment of her. Hamlet makes lewd remarks to Ophelia during the presentation of The Murder of Gonzago. He asks to lie in her lap and uses words with sexual double entendres. Later, some of the songs Ophelia sings in her madness have to do with the bawdiness and infidelity of young lovers. She sings of a young woman who tells her lover, “‘Before you tumbled me, You promised me to wed,’” to which the lover replies that he would have done so “‘[a]n thou hadst not come to my bed’” (4.5.63-64, 67). These lyrics reveal Ophelia’s confusion over whether to give in to Hamlet’s advances toward her or whether to reject him in an effort to preserve her reputation. She wants to be with him, but she is afraid that if she gives in to his sexual desires toward her, he will grow tired of her and leave her, like the lover in the song. Before Polonius’ death, Ophelia discusses her dilemma with her father and brother, but mostly hides her fear and hurt at Hamlet’s behavior. The stress of both feeling and having to hide these emotions contribute to Ophelia’s madness. In turn, her madness gives her a way to express these emotions through song, whereas a sane person could not publicly break into song without cause.
Hamlet’s cruel and improper treatment of Ophelia is also a result of his madness. He wants to be with Ophelia, but he tries to avoid her so that he will not corrupt her with his moral inferiority and his physical desire for her. Madness gives Hamlet a chance to express his romantic desires in socially unacceptable ways. In his madness, Hamlet gives voice to his suppressed sexual urges toward Ophelia. One example of this is his bawdy remarks to her during The Murder of Gonzago. Hamlet makes these remarks as part of his attempt to appear crazy, but they also reveal his real attraction for Ophelia and his frustration at his inability to have her. Thus Polonius’ belief that Hamlet’s madness springs from Ophelia’s rejection of him is partially true. Unrequited love is a contributing factor to the madness of both Hamlet and Ophelia. Once they become visibly crazy, they are able to express their romantic desires and frustrations more openly than before.
However, Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s ability to express their romantic frustrations does not cure them. On the contrary, Hamlet and Ophelia hurt each other by their madness. Ophelia is one of the first people to whom Hamlet reveals his madness. He does so by bursting into her chamber with disheveled clothes and an intense look and grabbing her arm. Ophelia fears that Hamlet is insane because she has followed Polonius’ advice and rejected Hamlet. It causes Ophelia guilt to think that she is the cause of Hamlet’s madness and makes her doubt whether she is doing the right thing by following her father’s advice. Ophelia also feels guilty for her attraction to Hamlet, which her family considers dangerous. Hamlet’s mad and inappropriate behavior gives her further cause to think that her love is dangerous. Thus Hamlet’s mad behavior is a contributing factor to Ophelia’s madness.
Ophelia’s madness also hurts Hamlet because it leads her to commit suicide, which causes Hamlet grief at her death. Hamlet is already leaving Denmark for England by the time Ophelia goes mad, so her death is a shock to him. Hamlet deduces from the “maimed rites” at a funeral that the dead person committed suicide, and from listening to Laertes’ passionate remarks that the funeral is for Ophelia (5.1.219). Hamlet expresses his shock by exclaiming, “What, the fair Ophelia!” (5.1.242). The epithet “fair Ophelia” displays Hamlet’s view of Ophelia as pure and beautiful. His shock and horror at her death is compounded by his exalted view of her. When Laertes challenges the sincerity of Hamlet’s grief, Hamlet responds, “Forty thousand brothers could not with all their quantity of love make up my sum” (5.1.272-274). This hyperbolic remark reveals that Hamlet genuinely loves Ophelia and is grieved by her death. He feels guilty that his mad and cruel treatment of her, which was driven by love, may have contributed to her madness and suicide.
The intensity of their love for each other and the internal and external conflicts that prevent them from fulfilling it contribute to Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s madness. This madness gives Hamlet and Ophelia a way to express their love in otherwise socially unacceptable ways. Both Hamlet and Ophelia also hurt each other through their madness and its consequences.
IV. Sensitive Intelligence
An underlying cause of Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s madness is their sensitive intelligence. This means that they have quick and penetrating minds, and the ability to feel deeply. These two traits go together, so that Hamlet and Ophelia’s deep feelings influence their perceptions, and vice versa. Thus their unpleasant feelings can lead them to insane thoughts and behavior. For instance, Hamlet’s grief and anger lead him to fixate on how death robs a man of his greatness. His anger at his mother’s quick remarriage and Ophelia’s rejection of him lead him to generalize that “woman’s love” is “brief” (3.2.151-152). Ophelia’s grief leads her to think that faithfulness has left the world with her father’s death. She expresses this thought by saying that violets, which symbolize faithfulness, “withered all when my father died” (4.5.188-189). Her fear and confusion at Hamlet’s treatment of her causes her to sing about young lovers’ infidelity to the maids they love once those maids yield to their desires. In her madness and fear, Ophelia brushes aside the possibility of young lovers’ fidelity, focusing instead on their capacity for inconstancy. These conclusions, which are driven by Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s madness, are pessimistic generalizations and so not entirely truthful. However, they are true reflections of the ill treatment Hamlet and Ophelia have suffered, and of the emotions caused by this ill treatment.
Although their madness leads Hamlet and Ophelia to make irrational comments, it also reveals their sensitive intelligence. Polonius refers to the “method” in Hamlet’s “madness,” and Laertes, Ophelia’s brother, sees in her “a document in madness” (2.2.205-206; 4.5.182). These observations mean that Hamlet and Ophelia are able to express their emotions and beliefs through their madness, and even understand their world in a way that sane people cannot. Polonius sees in Hamlet’s madness “a happiness that often madness hits on, which reason and sanity could not so prosperously be delivered of” (2.2.209-211). The quality he describes is an ability to perceive and describe the nature of the world. Hamlet and Ophelia have this quality in abundance, as revealed by the conclusions they make in their madness. This sensitive intelligence is an underlying factor in their madness, and their madness heightens their ability to think and feel deeply. Their penetrating and emotionally fraught conclusions about the world display the potent combination of Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s madness and the sensitive intelligence they already possess.
Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s sensitivity is also reflected in their deep love for their fathers. Laertes comments, “Nature is fine in love, and where ’tis fine it sends some precious instance of itself after the thing it loves” (4.5.166-168). This means that when a person loses someone he loves, he gives up a part of himself in remembrance of that person. It follows that love causes the lover pain when its fulfillment is thwarted, as by the death of the beloved. Intense love can lead to madness because when the love is not satisfied, the lover can focus obsessively on his loss and cease his normal behavior and thought processes. Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s love for each other and for their fathers is intense and leads them to unhappiness and insanity when it is thwarted. Their sensitivity enables them to have love so intense that it leads to madness.
Hamlet and Ophelia prove the theme that with great love comes a capacity for great pain. Their love for each other and for their fathers causes them grief, frustration, and madness because they cannot be with the people they love. This madness is a result of their sensitivity.
Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s trait of sensitive intelligence does not go unnoticed. Both Hamlet and Ophelia are recognized for their grace and intelligence. Ophelia admires the intelligence and potential for greatness that she sees in Hamlet. After one of his mad conversations with her, Ophelia remarks, “Oh, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!” (3.1.153). She goes on to enumerate Hamlet’s virtues and express her sorrow that his “noble and most sovereign reason [is] like sweet bells jangled out of tune and harsh” (3.1.160-161). This simile expresses the high regard Ophelia holds for Hamlet and his intelligence. It causes her pain to see Hamlet’s reason overthrown by his madness. Ophelia’s speech displays not only Hamlet’s virtues and intelligence, but also the sorrow Ophelia feels at his loss of sanity. Ophelia is “fine in love” for Hamlet, so she feels his emotional pain almost as if it were her own. “Oh, woe is me,” she proclaims, “t’have seen what I have seen, see what I see!” (3.1.163-164). These words express Ophelia’s grief at Hamlet’s insanity. Her speech lamenting Hamlet’s madness describes both Hamlet’s intelligence and Ophelia’s sensitivity. Interestingly, the virtue of sensitive intelligence Ophelia describes in Hamlet is one of the internal factors that contributes to his madness.
Ophelia’s reaction to Hamlet’s madness foreshadows her own loss of sanity and the reaction it produces in Laertes. Like Hamlet, Ophelia goes insane, causing someone who loves her, Laertes, to express sorrow and regret that her reason and grace have been usurped by madness. Laertes’ grief at his sister’s insanity is compounded by his exalted view of her. This view is inspired both by Laertes’ natural love for Ophelia and by her own beauty and sensitive intelligence. He laments the sudden insanity of his sister, who “stood challenger on mount of all the age for her perfections” (4.7.29-30). Laertes does not elaborate on these perfections, but previous characterization of Ophelia suggests that Laertes is referring to Ophelia’s beauty, her grace, her sensitivity, and her intelligence. Both Hamlet and Ophelia are recognized for their virtues, even after other people, such as Ophelia and Laertes, consider those virtues to be weakened by madness. What the other people do not always realize is that these virtues, especially the virtue of sensitive intelligence, are contributing factors in Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s madness, and gain new expression through their madness.
Complexity, especially in Hamlet, is also a component of sensitive intelligence. Other people fail to grasp the nature of Hamlet’s sensitive intelligence, especially when he expresses it in madness. In a conversation with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet responds contemptuously to those who would try to “pluck out the heart of my mystery” (3.2.364-365). This means that Hamlet recognizes the depths of his emotional and intellectual capacities, and resents the efforts of others to try to simplify and manipulate these capacities. Hamlet’s madness is a way for him to resist these efforts to reduce him to playing a simple role in society. Hamlet consciously uses his mad behavior to give voice to his deep thoughts and feelings and confuse those who would pluck out the heart of his mystery. He is proud of his sensitive intelligence, and uses madness to express it. Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s traits of sensitivity and intelligence are innate tendencies that contribute to their madness. In turn, their insanity enhances their sensitive intelligence and enables them to perceive the world in ways that sane people cannot.
V. Reaction to the Horror of the World
Both Hamlet and Ophelia perceive and are disturbed by the horror of their world. Their madness is a reaction to the horror they perceive in their world. They react to this horror through their words and their actions. Hamlet uses metaphors to reflect on the horror of the world. He compares it to an “unweeded garden” and a “prison” (1.2.135; 2.2.244). These metaphors reveal Hamlet’s disgust with the world and criticism of it as morally corrupt and intellectually stifling. He also expresses displeasure at man’s insignificance, describing him as a “quintessence of dust” (2.2.309). This description connects to Hamlet’s belief that a man’s greatness is forgotten after his death. Hamlet’s words express the depressed, dissatisfied mood that is a part of his madness. He is depressed because of the death of his father and because his restless intelligence causes him to ponder incessantly the problems he finds in the world and in man. He is dissatisfied both by the lack of perfection in his world and the lack of moral perfection he perceives in himself. Hamlet is disturbed by the horror he finds in his world and in himself. He describes it through dark, figurative language that reveals his unhappy mood and his insanity.
Unlike Hamlet, Ophelia reacts to the horror of the world by describing it in terms of beauty and lightness. She becomes so disturbed by the unpleasant events happening to and around her that she goes insane. In her insanity, she refers to these horrors not by directly describing them, but rather by mentioning them indirectly in flowery, fanciful language. Laertes says of Ophelia, “Thought and affliction, passion, hell itself, she turns to favor and to prettiness” (4.5.191-192). This means that Ophelia takes a childlike, almost cheerful tone in describing the horrors she perceives. Ophelia is disturbed by the horror of the world and desires a return to innocence. Twice in her songs about death she mentions the color white, which is symbolic of innocence. Also, she distributes flowers that are symbolic of various troubles and vices, such as grief and infidelity. In her madness Ophelia associates the horrible with the beautiful. This unlikely association is brought about by Ophelia’s attempts to reconcile her desire for innocence with the unpleasant things she actually observes in the world.
Both Hamlet and Ophelia make use of figurative language and behavior in describing the horrors they perceive in the world. Their perception of these horrors is also a contributing factor in their madness.
Both Hamlet and Ophelia recognize and are troubled by the horror of the world, but the ways in which they take action against it are different. In a soliloquy, Hamlet poses the dilemma, “[t]o be, or not to be” (3.1.57). He ponders whether it is a nobler course of action to suffer through life or to commit suicide. Suicide appeals to Hamlet because it offers an escape from the suffering of life on earth. He goes so far as to equate suicide with courage, and failure to commit suicide with cowardice, driven only by fear of what is to come after death. Nevertheless, Hamlet resolves to live. He tells Horatio, “the readiness is all” (5.2.220). This philosophy advocates a willingness to accept one’s fate and an attempt to act morally in spite of the unpleasant conditions of the world. Hamlet ultimately follows this philosophy by trying to do what he perceives to be right, unafraid of the suffering associated with death or life. He takes action against the horror of the world by taking revenge on Claudius, who murdered Hamlet’s father. Hamlet believes he is fulfilling his filial duty and helping to improve the world by ridding it of Claudius, a murderer and a usurper. Hamlet’s purpose in displaying madness is to help him take revenge on Claudius. Hamlet’s madness serves his purpose because it helps him accomplish this goal of revenge. Hamlet’s insanity is internal, but he shows it externally to help him take revenge. His fixation on revenge is also a product of his insanity and his grief and anger at his father’s death.
Ophelia chooses to take action against the horror of the world by killing herself rather than by killing someone else. She puts an end to her troubles by taking her own life. Unlike Hamlet, who contemplates and decides against suicide, Ophelia decides that suicide is the appropriate course of action against the horror of her world. The waters that cause Ophelia’s death symbolize the madness and troubles that lead to her suicide. They hearken back to the metaphorical “sea of troubles” Hamlet describes in his soliloquy (3.1.60). Ophelia reacts to her “sea of troubles” by killing herself so that she will not have to suffer anymore. Ophelia’s ultimate reaction to the horror of the world is to remove herself from it by killing herself. Although Christian teaching forbids suicide, Ophelia considers it the right thing to do in her situation. Her decision is influenced by her madness, her sufferings, and her negative view of the world.
Thus Hamlet chooses “to be,” and Ophelia chooses “not to be.” Each one takes the action that he thinks is morally right and right for himself. Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s madness plays a large role in determining their perceptions of morality and of the world. These perceptions, along with their often unhappy emotions, lead them to take drastic actions to try to improve their own situations and, in Hamlet’s case, the situation of the world. Their two courses of actions, suicide and continuing to live, are alternate solutions to the existential dilemma posed by Hamlet in his soliloquy. Hamlet concludes that it is nobler to continue life, although it causes him suffering, in the hopes that he can decrease the horror of his world. Ophelia concludes that it is nobler to die by her own hand than to continue to live in a world full of vice and suffering.
Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s ultimate courses of action reflect both their determination to live morally and the limitations placed on their determination by the immorality of their world. The emotions and thoughts of their insanity influence them in making their decisions to live or die. Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s madness is a reaction to the horror that they perceive in their world and in themselves. The other causes of their madness feed into this cause and contribute to their solution to the dilemma of how best to act against the horror of the world. Although Hamlet and Ophelia take different courses of action in solving this dilemma, both courses of action are marked by their insanity.
The madness of Hamlet and Ophelia is a complex phenomenon caused by their grief at their fathers’ deaths, their disappointments in love, their sensitive intelligence, and their reaction to the horror of the world. Hamlet and Ophelia experience unique and penetrating insights into the nature of their world because of their insanity. Their madness is both a blessing and a curse because it leads them to moral decisions and enhanced perception of their world, but only at the cost of great personal suffering.
Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s insanity provides a prism through which to understand insanity in the real world. Hamlet says, “the purpose of playing…is to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature” (3.2.20-22). Shakespeare’s Hamlet accomplishes this purpose. The madness of Hamlet and Ophelia proves that while madness can be a destructive and painful force, it also has the possibility to enhance perception and sensitivity in its possessor. Rather than trying to suppress and treat insanity, society should find a way to appreciate and apply the insights gleaned from people who experience insanity. By embracing insanity, humans can gain a fuller understanding of themselves and of their world.
College Application Essay: In Praise of Knowledge
One day, I was looking at tools used by early man in the American Museum of Natural History. Although I initially tried to examine the tools with scholarly distance, I cast aside such calmness when I recognized in them the violence inherent in material and intangible progress, a violence corroborated by the note scribbled at the end of Kurtz’s treatise on civilizing the native Africans in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “Exterminate all the brutes!” This phrase reverberates in my brain like a G minor chord when I read about the torture of political dissenters at the hands of authoritarian governments, or see my fellow honors students tricking my lab partner into biting a broken pen and then mocking him because his lips are covered with black ink.
Under these circumstances, the adage “Power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely” appears to me not only a gross oversimplification of the nature of power, but also a clumsy attempt at absolving the weak of their own corruption. Moral imperfections are magnified in those who have the power to carry out their violent desires, but those too weak to execute their malicious plans are, although pure in act, just as corrupt in intent as the powerful. For instance, many of the students I know who suffer the most at the hands of their peers exhibit similar cruelty to students who are yet lower in status. On a larger, Nietzschean scale, the slaves and barbarians who were initially too weak to repel the Romans later overthrew their oppressors, first politically and militarily, and then intellectually, by replacing the ancient link between virtue and power with a new moral system in which the meek and kind were the most virtuous.
In such a cruel and morally ambiguous universe, what am I to do? I have read about charitable organizations, and political reform, and violent revolution, but none of these grand ideas gives me as much peace as finding the limit as Δx approaches 0 of any differentiable function, such as f(x) = x. There is a transcendental beauty possessed not only by mathematics but by all academic and artistic pursuits. This is the beauty of which Plato spoke in his Symposium, and its pursuit is the joyful labor of the philosopher, or lover of wisdom. Once the philosopher recognizes the transcendence of knowledge, he is able to see everything in the universe as beautiful because it can all be known. Good and bad become irrelevant concepts, for knowledge goes beyond good and evil. Love, like knowledge, is morally neutral, and can extend in all directions: from human to human, from human to knowledge, from human to humankind. I want to attend college so that I can learn more about my world, my fellow humans, and myself. Only through intellectual labor can I find peace, happiness, understanding, and universal love, and only then will Δx reach 0, and the limit of f(x) equal one.
Good evening, my classmates, teachers, and guests. It is my great honor and pleasure to be standing here before you as the valedictorian of the Dobbs Ferry High School Class of 2012. I have truly enjoyed my four years at Dobbs Ferry High School, especially my senior year, and I thank all of you for making my time here as wonderful as possible. Tonight I will speak to you of love – love between family members, friends, and strangers, the love that binds together our high school community as well as our world.
The ancient Greeks recognized four forms of love – storge, or familial affection; philia, or love between friends; eros, most apparent in romantic love; and agape. It is the last form, agape, with which I concern myself tonight. Unlike the other types of love, agape is not limited to people with whom one has a special relationship, such as friends or family. Let me give you an example. Two nights ago I attended our senior prom. Most people, including me, spent a majority of their time with their friends or dates. This is to be expected. What was less immediately obvious but at least as powerful was the sense of camaraderie binding the entire crowd. This affection manifested itself in the mingling of groups on the dance floor, in the spontaneous conversations held while waiting on line for appetizers or standing beside the fish tank, and in the smiles shared by all the students. Love has appeared among us throughout our shared high school years. It is the force that creates the harmony in our athletic, dramatic, and musical activities, that gives meaning to our academic endeavors, and that makes us cheerful givers of our time and money to charitable causes.
Love is not selfish. It seeks the good of the beloved even at the expense of its own goals. In mathematics one speaks of asymptotes, or lines that a curve approaches but never touches. We are like the curves, and the asymptotes like our own goals. As long as we focus on a singular objective, such as recognition for our good deeds or reciprocation of our love, we will be unable to focus on doing good for its own sake and the sake of those around us. Only when we defy our selfish tendencies by helping and caring for others, for instance by kind words, smiles, or volunteer work, will we reach the asymptote of our own happiness.
Love is kind. History offers us examples of the beneficial effects of kindness for both the giver and the receiver. After World War One, the victorious Allies, especially the war-torn France, wanted to punish their defeated German enemies. To this end, they created the Treaty of Versailles, which placed guilt for the war on Germany, required Germany to pay exorbitant reparations to the Allies, and reduced the size of Germany by redrawing its borders. For a few years, this method kept Germany in subjugation, but soon enough, the bitterness brought out in the German people by the Allies led to the rise of Nazism and the start of World War Two. When the Allies defeated Nazi Germany in 1945, they realized the grave error in a punitive treaty and decided instead to work toward international cooperation and well-being. The Marshall Plan helped rebuild the German economy, denazification and war crimes trials reduced the harmful psychological effects of Nazism, and the creation of the United Nations laid the foundations for lasting international peace and cooperation. The willingness of the Allies to help Germany, their former enemy, after World War Two ensured that, at least until the present time, no war on the scale of World War Two would devastate the peace of Europe.
Love is connected to all things that are good and true. A major objective in modern physics is the search for a Grand Unified Theory to explain the unity of the fundamental physical forces at extreme conditions. Already it has been proven that at high temperatures and pressures, the electromagnetic, weak nuclear, and strong nuclear forces are able to unite, and it is hypothesized that at even higher temperatures and pressures, gravity, the fourth fundamental force, will join the other three to produce a single, powerful force. Love is like this unified force. In ordinary circumstances, it appears to be separate from, albeit connected to, such things as truth, happiness, and beauty. However, when we consider great examples of love, such as the willingness of soldiers to sacrifice their lives for a cause, the aid given by people to their erstwhile enemies, or the complete devotion of parents to their children, we see not only love but truth, beauty, and ultimate happiness as well.
In William Shakespeare’s Othello, the title character proclaims as he is dying that he is “one that loved not wisely but too well.” We must take caution not to let our own love act without the guidance of knowledge. Sometimes an act of passion may seem like a true expression of love, but it will actually hurt both the lover and his beloved. Before we act, we must consider the consequences of our actions. The skills and information we have learned in high school will help prepare us for the challenges of life and the call to kindness, selflessness, knowledge, and love that is planted deep within us. It is my great hope that you, my friends and companions, will persist in love to all around you for the rest of your lives, and I have faith that we are all capable of such love, for only through it can we find perfect happiness. May the love that has united us these four years endure within and around us for the rest of our lives.