A note to self after reading Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne
In the spring of 1593, when John Donne was 21 years old, his younger brother, Henry, was arrested by English authorities. Henry’s crime? Harboring a Catholic priest named William Harrington. Harrington’s crime? Being a Catholic priest in Protestant England.
For his crimes, Harrington was tried, found guilty of high treason, and sentenced to the standard death of all male traitors at the time: specifically, he was to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. This meant that Harrington was, first, dragged behind a horse to the place of his execution, then hanged to a point just short of death, after which he was taken down from the scaffold, disembowelled, and chopped into four pieces (female traitors were, “for reasons of public decency,” merely burned at the stake). Donne’s brother, Henry, meanwhile languished in prison, where he was tortured and eventually died of the plague.
None of this was a new experience for John Donne: between the 1535 execution of his distant relative Thomas More (the Catholic humanist and martyr) and Henry’s death in prison in 1594, at least eleven members of Donne’s family died in prison or in exile for their Catholicism. Little wonder, then, that, as Katherine Rundell writes in Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne, “to be born a Catholic [in 16th century England] was to live with a constant, low-level, background thrum of terror.”
“It was,” writes Rundell, “a darkly particular way to grow up; not only the terror and injustice, but the strangeness of it: how unhinged the world must feel, that you are persecuted for professing that which you believe to be the most powerful possible truth. Not ‘strange’ as in ‘unfamiliar’, for being killed for your religion was hardly new; strange as in unmoored from all sense, reason, sanity.”
In an era in which one’s beliefs – not actions, not misdeeds toward others, but one’s innermost thoughts – could be cause for death, is it any wonder that writers such as Donne tended not to comment too explicitly on the political scene of the day? (Donne did write a philosophical defense of suicide, though he dared not publish it because attempted suicide was punishable by death at the time.) Even if a writer’s work did not bring about a death sentence, other punishment might still await: when, in 1597, “The Isle of Dogs,” a play by Thomas Nashe and Ben Jonson, was deemed seditious by the local Privy Council, all London playhouses were immediately ordered closed and Jonson and two of the actors were sent to prison for their shenanigans.
And so, Donne and his contemporaries – which included a promising young writer named William Shakespeare – found themselves hemmed in on two sides. On one side was this religious state, always ready to kill or imprison a writer for any trespass, whether real or imagined. On the other side were the audiences, who just wanted to be entertained. If Donne, Shakespeare, et. al, were to make a living and feed their families, they’d have to find a way to thread this needle.
Far from being a cultural wasteland, however, 16th- and 17th-century England – a time of plague, bear-baiting, and religious terror – left us with Shakespeare’s King Lear, Macbeth, and Hamlet; Donne’s “The Flea” and “The Sun Rising;” Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queen;” and Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. Anyone writing poetry or drama in the 21st century is merely fishing downstream from these works. This does beg the question, though: if this period was such a dark, repressive time in England, how did these writers manage to create works of art that continue to echo into eternity? The answer, as Daniel Boorstin writes in his essay on Shakespeare in The Creators, is embedded in that question.
“The limits imposed by Elizabethan society Shakespeare somehow made into his opportunity. For the dramatist still dared not comment explicitly on the politics or mores of his own age…” writes Boorstin. “Ironically, Hamlet and Lear and Macbeth would remain alive for alien centuries, precisely because Shakespeare's inhibitions saved him from recounting topical problems in familiar settings. He would reach out to us, and take us inward with him to enjoy the Human Comedy in exotic costumes and on remote scenes, equally enticing to the Elizabethan theatergoer and to us.”
The lesson here, equally applicable to 21st century America as to 17th century England, is that writers, philosophers, musicians, and artists are generally at their least interesting, their least eternal, when they slip down into the contemporary political muck. Politicians and governments always have been and will always be petty, cruel, and disappointing, but it’s easy to forget this, easy to believe instead that our time is different, that the outrages of our era are the most outrageous ever. It’s tempting to believe that art has a moral obligation to confront these injustices, head-on and explicitly, lest anyone have any doubts about where the artist stands. But try telling that to Donne or Shakespeare, much less to a man like Seneca, whose paychecks were signed by the Roman emperor Nero, arguably the horriblest of horrible bosses.
Of course, just because you avoid contemporary politics in your art does not guarantee that future generations will be enjoying your creative output 500 years from now, but history suggests that wallowing in contemporary, hot button issues is a good way to time-stamp your work and render it largely irrelevant to future generations. Will anyone be reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five or “Harrison Bergeron” – real insights into what Rundell calls “the grimly and majestically improbable problem of being alive” – two or three centuries from now? Who knows? But those future readers will likely find more relevance in those stories than in Vonnegut’s later-life diatribes against the second Bush administration or against an American culture that, in Vonnegut’s words, was “drunk on petroleum.” The “merely moral judgment” (to use Joseph Campbell’s phrase) of the present moment is often shortsighted, and thinkers and writers are at their best when they remember that today and all its minutiae do not represent the end-all-be-all of the human experience. In our age of hot takes and clickbait insta-outrage, this is not an easy impulse to resist. Careers and fortunes continue to be made by ginning up this anger, and the money and status can be hard to pass up. But, of course, this is not new either. Just ask Shakespeare.
“Ben Jonson exceeded [Shakespeare] in reputation,” writes Boorstin, “and it was Jonson, not Shakespeare, whom the king appointed poet laureate with a substantial pension in 1616.” (Jonson, like Donne, later converted to Protestantism and managed to keep himself in the Crown’s good graces.) And Shakespeare, even if he didn’t become poet laureate, managed to live a comfortable, even prosperous life. For most artists, however, abstaining from the fads of the present moment will come with real costs.
“People are more likely to appreciate the man who serves the circumstances of his own brief hour, or the temper of the moment, — belonging to it, living and dying with it,” wrote German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. “The general history of art and literature shows that the highest achievements of the human mind are, as a rule, not favorably received at first; but remain in obscurity until they win notice from intelligence of a high order, by whose influence they are brought into a position which they then maintain, in virtue of the authority thus given them.”
And yet, it is Shakespeare and Schophenhauer – and not so much Jonson – whose work we continue to read and reread. Among those three men, then, who was playing the long game?
The question, of course, is how – how do we play that long game? For starters, don’t seek too much inspiration out of the present day. The odds are that anything that’s relevant or popular or controversial now will not remain so for long. Most films, most books, most music simply don’t stand the test of time, which is why it’s worth studying the works that do endure. Why are they still with us? Why do they still speak to us?
Why do we still read King Lear?
Why do we still read the “Tao Te Ching”?
Why do we still read Moby Dick?
Because, in short, they speak to what is eternal in us, to those universal human themes that transcend our own era.
“I don’t listen to a lot of contemporary music,” said Mazzy Star guitarist David Roeback in a 1990 Los Angeles Times feature. “I kind of purposely try to avoid it because I don’t want to be influenced by it. I prefer the Rip Van Winkle approach to art.”
Rick Rubin, in his 2023 book The Creative Act, echoes this sentiment: “Read the finest literature, watch the masterpieces of cinema, get up close to the most influential paintings, visit architectural landmarks...exposure to great art provides an invitation. It draws us forward, and opens doors of possibility. If you make the choice of reading classic literature every day for a year, rather than reading the news, by the end of that time period you’ll have a more honed sensitivity for recognizing greatness from the books than from the media.” You will also have a better understanding of “this being human,” as Rumi called it, and isn’t that the ultimate aim of any art?
What these time-tested works give us is a sense of our greatest human capacities, both for good and for evil. The work of Donne and Shakespeare and others who have survived through the ages to reach us in the present day offer us, says Rundell, a form of body armor. Their work, she writes, “is protection against the slipshod and the half-baked…protection against those who would tell you to narrow yourself, to follow fashion in your mode of thought.”
“The true, uncompromising originals,” says Rundell, “show us what is possible.”
They speak, in short, to eternity.