On Shakespeare, Wyoming, and Merely Staying Afloat
“You are hanging on by a very fine thread, and I dig that about you.”
Welcome to today’s issue of Other Life.
In this issue:
The simple grandeur of staying afloat
Why Shakespeare is real
The new Rocky Mountain gentleman scholars
We host seminars on great books. We’re currently reading Hamlet. If you start now, you should be able to finish before we meet on Sunday. All seminars are free for dues-paying members. Become a member.
On Staying Afloat
Seeking to win someone else's game is a common mistake.
There are only a handful of games that almost every highly capable man tries to win—status, money, women, reproduction, strength, etc. But for each, only one person alive at any time can be the winner. If you're not the winner, then no matter how well you do, you're only one of many, many, losers.
When I die, I want to feel like I won the game. But what is the game? Everything turns on this question.
I think you have to choose the best possible life—according to your personal tastes, values, and ethical-aesthetic attractors—and then the game is simply to survive it. I recently saw this idea stated perfectly by Hunter S. Thompson when he wrote:
I’ve learned a thing or two about what this involves.
One chooses a life by making costly, irreversible decisions that lock one into a chosen path. From there on out, it’s not even an option to win previously standardized games.
Categorical orthogonality to all previously existing games. There's no metric one is trying to increase. One may need to increase certain metrics if they start falling fatally low, but it would be absurd to aim for maximizing any of them. You've already perfectly maximized life itself, the hard part thereafter is just not going broke, not succumbing to the normal temptations, and not losing faith. It’s not easy to survive this way, but the huge overwhelming advantage is you pull victory all the way up front.
Eventually, most people realize that life is, in some sense, impossible. As Chekhov once said:
The loss, the constraints, the sufferings, the evils, the random futilities—at a certain point, you realize that the walls close in, no matter what you do. Though the walls must eventually close in, one does have the power to define and shape the contours of one’s own particular prison.
As I grow older, I continue to struggle with this vexatious trap (and frankly it seems that I struggle with it more than many men my age), but as I begin to get a better handle on it, I also realize that I deeply love my prison. I wouldn’t take another prison if I had the choice, and that’s when I realize I’m doing all right. I’m not really winning any game except for the one that I chose, but in this one game I am the absolute winner, already—merely by waking up every morning.
The most criminally underrated film in the past few decades, Jerry Maguire (1996), is the story of two people who choose a life a together. Called by a shared vision, Jerry Maguire and Dorothy Boyd choose to do something unique, perhaps impossible. Having burned their bridges, their life together isn’t easy, but it’s beautiful.
The most famous lines from that film are “You had me at hello,” and “You complete me.“ The line I love the most is easy to overlook, perhaps it is nothing, but to me it’s everything.
“We’ll stay afloat,” Jerry says to Dorothy, with a smile on his face, “We’ll stay afloat.”
On Shakespearean Exceptionalism
Uber-rationalist Sam Bankman-Fried, the young crypto magnate currently on trial for a slew of financial crimes, once gave an intriguing argument attempting to debunk Shakespeare:
The idea was recently endorsed and developed by Richard Hanania, thus finally giving my reclusive little newsletter here a rare hook into The Discourse…
I'm not offended by the argument—I have no particular investment in the Shakespeare brand and have only read a few of his plays—but I can tell you why I think it’s wrong. I doubt either of these guys really thought it through.
Let's start with one of Hanania’s minor claims, and then focus on his main claim.
One of his minor claims is that most human capacities (from sports to writing) should improve over time (as wealth and IQ and technology all improve).
This makes sense, but he doesn't acknowledge that this fact also cuts against him: In judging the merits of an author, one should really control for external aids. In combat sports, a mediocre Heavyweight would generally destroy a champion Flyweight, but nobody would say the mediocre Heavyweight is a more impressive figure in the sport. That's why they have "pound for pound" rankings, which seek to control for the external aid of extra weight. You can definitely argue that Christopher Nolan is a better a writer than Shakespeare, but only in the sense that a mediocre Heavyweight is better than a champion Flyweight: How good would Christopher Nolan be if he never had access to the internet, and never got to read or watch any of the amazing work produced after the Elizabethan era, and never got his Flynn Effect, and lived in a society with much less economic surplus to go around? Not as good as he is today, certainly.
Such a counterfactual is quite difficult to calculate, of course, but Hanania doesn't even entertain it.
The real, steel-manned version of Shakespearean Exceptionalism is just that he was strangely, uniquely great—comprehending and treating, with surprising depth and beauty, topics and themes that we still recognize as particularly important and persistent—despite his dearth of all our modern affordances. There is something specific and still unsurpassed in the degree to which he understood and reflected, so beautifully, so many general and universal aspects of human nature—well before they were diagnosed or formalized rigorously in modernity.
Is this reading of Shakespeare correct, or have the rationalists destroyed it with one fell swoop of stone-cold logic?
Hanania boils his argument down to one specific claim: A decent living writer today could study Shakespeare's techniques and produce a Shakespearean text that would be rated just as good as a comparable text by Shakespeare, when evaluated by a group of average people.
I don't think he technically believes this, exactly, because the same critique could be leveled at, say, economics research. I could write a nonsense economics research article that most people would rate as higher quality than the average piece in the AER. And that judgment would be wrong, of course.
I'm pretty sure Hanania would agree that the evaluation ought to be weighted by some kind of literary expertise (he alludes to it briefly), but his objection is primarily that Shakespeare experts have a pro-Shakespeare bias. That's fair enough: If Shakespeare is "fake" then perhaps the entire contemporary Shakespeare industry is endogenous to the Shakespeare myth.
There's a very simple way to show that his main claim is false. We can go back to the time when Shakespeare did not yet enjoy the unfair advantage of accumulated prestige.
While Shakespeare was working, there were some skilled playwrights who tried to copy him. The reason Shakespeare survives, and they do not, is because of Shakespeare's superior quality—which is objective and demonstrable.
Hundreds if not thousands of educated observers—before the contemporary Shakespeare industry emerged—have catalogued in detail the exceptional qualities of his work. I will give you just one specific example.
Antonio's Revenge was a play by Marston that was published around the same time as Hamlet, and the two plays have similar structures and a lot of similar language. How do we know that Marston copied Shakespeare, and Shakespeare did not copy Marston?
If you look closely at all the duplications, the instance in Marston causes a degradation of meaning and lyrical quality while the instance in Shakespeare enhances the meaning and lyrical quality. For instance, both plays connect the hero's mother with the heroine's fate. In Marston, the mother's infidelity and heroine's suspected infidelity are linked in a basic way through a murderer, whose wrongdoing is responsible for both. But Hamlet's suspicion of Ophelia comes from his belief in the frailty of womanhood, which he got from his mother's conduct (not in Marston). This motif in Hamlet is a node that supports other notable ironies in the larger web, for instance when the Queen hopes that love for Ophelia is the "cause of Hamlet's wildness."
Marston's version is objectively, one could almost say mathematically, less deep. And that's a skilled playwright with a command of Elizabethan English.
If we conducted Hanania's experiment, anything produced by an average contemporary writer would suffer the same demonstrable inadequacies relative to Shakespeare.
The “Shakespeare is Fake” argument is funny, and ignorance can sometimes be the source of great creative thinking, but in this case it's just wrong. It would be a shame if any impressionable young people took it seriously.
As far as I can tell, there really was something freakishly genius about this Shakespeare guy.
The Wagon Box Inn
Where I’m sitting right now. County Highway’s Walter Kirn lives not too far in Montana.
I’m writing you today from Story, Wyoming—population 805—where I was invited to this place called The Wagon Box Inn.
It’s pretty remarkable. Bunch of guys bought an old rustic lodge and they meet here regularly. Some are writers, some are founders, many are outdoorsman of one kind or another. Led by a one Paul McNiel, it seems like almost everyone is Christian but I’m not certain—it’s not too explicit or self-conscious, which I much prefer. It’s not stuffy or larpy, just happens to be a certain type of guy out here.
Apparently there are several writers within a couple hours’ drive. And they occasionally fly people out as well. I’m not certain where all this is going but I’ve been here one day so far and it’s really impressive. Humble, genuine small-town rustic; and sincere, well-educated folks working on interesting projects.
One reason for being here is I’m scouting for places to hold the next annual meetup (which we’re pushing to Spring). I think we have to do something here. It’s very bold what they’re doing, it feels special; it’s beautiful here; and the romance of the Rocky Mountain West just never gets old to me.