SUPERIOR PEOPLE

When I was much younger and more impressionable, I was excited by reading Beethoven's Spiritual Development by J.W.N. Sullivan. However, even then I had reservations. After all, Sullivan was neither a musician nor a musicologist, but a popular science writer and journalist. I suspected that he had been carried away, and had overshot the mark. Later I discovered that Brigid Brophy had expressed similar reservations in her book Mozart the Dramatist: 

               But it is time to point out that Beethovenolatry, a Victorian movement which did not
               reach its culmination until 1927 with the publication of J.W.N. Sullivan's famous book
               leads to absurdities.

Nevertheless, even then one of Sullivan's insights caught my eye and stuck in my mind -- so much so that when something jogged my memory 40 years later, I went directly to the relevant page. Rereading the passage confirmed my opinion that this insight is unconventional but useful, and no less true than other such insights. 

               His overbearing manners, about which we have evidence even when he was known 
               merely as a pianist, were not those of an uncouth provincial, misbehaving himself in all 
               innocence. They were the expression of one of Beethoven's most lasting 
               characteristics, a profound contempt for the great bulk of his fellow men. This
               contempt  was by no means always savage; it was often robustly good-humored. But 
               there can be no question but that it was there...
                         To such a man the majority of human beings are more or less random 
               collections of borrowed ideas. They are, to an extent he finds it difficult to understand, 
               the result of their accidental circumstances. He feels in them an entire absence of the 
               integrating strength and courage that dwells in himself. Their culture and morality, their 
               aims in life, even their joys and sorrows, seem to him merely characterless 
               reflections of their environment. They have none of his passion for heroic achievement, 
               and in any case they would be incapable of paying the price for it. They are never 
               honest, for the last thing they would face is themselves in their essential loneliness. 
               With such creatures a man of Beethoven's kind could never be really intimate. He could
               treat them with rough good-humor or, if they offended him, he could blare out in 
               contemptuous wrath. But he could never treat them with the consideration and respect 
               that a man shows towards his equals. He could hurt their feelings with careless 
               indifference, believing that their feelings were of no consequence even if they really 
               existed... 
                         At times he tried to be coldly diplomatic with people and to conceal from them 
               the contempt he felt. Thus, he notes in the 1814 diary: "Never show to men the 
               contempt they deserve, one never knows to what use one may want to put them." Even
               during the early years in Vienna he adopted this diplomatic attitude. Thus, speaking of 
               men who doubtless considered themselves his intimate friends, he describes one as 
               "too weak for friendship" and goes on: "I consider him and -------- mere 
               instruments on which, when it pleases me, I play; but they can never become noble 
               witnesses of my inner and outer activity, nor be in true sympathy with me; I value them 
               according as they are useful to me." Even for so considerable a genius as Haydn he 
               did not conceal a certain sneering condescension. Smaller men had to endure being 
               tossed up and down as the mood took him.

I have observed the existence of thoughts like those that Sullivan imputes to Beethoven, both in myself and in others -- so much so, that I believe that Sullivan's character sketch of Beethoven is not far-fetched. He enunciates an inconvenient, unpleasant truth.

Average people are uncomfortable with people of superior intellect and/or talent, often even with the idea that such people exist. I often think that self-styled debunkers who attempt to prove that Shakespeare did not write the plays, or that Da Vinci did not paint the paintings, etc. are small-minded academics who cannot face the fact that those people really were geniuses. Even more common is the silly idea that people of superior intellect are not intelligent enough know that they are unusual, and superior to the majority of their fellow men and women. Of course they know.

This knowledge does not automatically make them misanthropes or egomaniacs, but it might. One infamous case is that of Richard Wagner. For example, his wife Cosima quoted him in her diaries: 

               Music has taken a bad turn: these young people have no idea how to write a melody, 
               they just give us shavings, which they dress up to look like a lion's mane and shake at 
               us ... It's as if they avoid melodies, for fear of having perhaps stolen them from 
               someone else. (June 21, 1880)
                         I am writing Parsifal only for my wife -- if I had to depend on the German spirit, I 
               should have nothing more to say. (December 2, 1877)

Wagner's actions, however, speak louder than his words. He allowed the conductor Hermann Levi to worship him, to work tirelessly on his behalf, and to conduct his operas with great success, while he continued to publish antisemitic writings. He allowed the silk merchant Otto von Wesendonck to place a cottage at his disposal, and repaid this kindness by carrying on an impassioned love affair with Wesendonck's wife Mathilde. He allowed the famous conductor Hans von Buelow to work tirelessly on his behalf and to conduct his operas with great success, and repaid this support by stealing von Buelow's wife Cosima. When she finally convinced von Buelow to grant her a divorce so that she could marry Wagner, she had already had three children by Wagner.

A similar case is that of the chess genius Bobby Fischer. In an interview for the Ambassador Report in 1977, Fischer was quoted as saying: "Most people are sheep, and they need the support of others." In an interview with Ralph Ginzburg in 1961, Fischer was quoted as voicing the following gems: 

               They [his opponents in chess matches] have nothing on me, those guys. They can't 
               even touch me... When I meet those Russian patzers I'll put them in their place.
                         You don't learn anything in school... I didn't like the whole thing. You have to mix
               with all those stupid kids. The teachers are even stupider than the kids. 
                         I don't keep any close friends. I don't need friends. 

Arthur Schopenhauer, in his Maxims of Worldly Wisdom, wrote about Russian horns, each of which can only play one note. But his conclusion is not about horns, but about his own consciousness of mental superiority. 

               Now those who like company can deduce the rule from this comparison, that deficiency
               of quality in those we meet must be made up for somehow by quantity. With one 
               intelligent being, though he be the only one, it is possible to have all the social 
               intercourse that may be desired; but when we are forced to deal with none but ordinary 
               people, it is best to collect a crowd of them, so that by collaboration 
               something may result, on the analogy of the horns. And may Heaven grant you 
               patience for the job! 

Beethoven might easily have become such a misanthropic egomaniac monster. No one ever really loved him: not his family, not his patrons, not his servile adherents, not the women he tried to love. He had to face the catastrophe of his deafness in cruel isolation, In spite of this, he loved "humanity" in general (as in the Ninth Symphony) but he had only contempt for specific people. Nevertheless, it could have been much worse. 

Sullivan, in the course of describing Goethe's reaction upon meeting Beethoven, incidentally indicates that Goethe himself was not very different from Beethoven. Apparently, Goethe was not insulted by Beethoven's attitude, because he himself had a similar (if less antisocial) attitude: 

               Even Goethe found this attitude in him a little disconcerting, as he complains in a letter
               to Zelter. "His talent amazed me; unfortunately he is an utterly untamed personality, 
               not altogether in the wrong in holding the world to be detestable, but who does not 
               make it any the more enjoyable either for himself or for others by his attitude." Even 
               Goethe found Beethoven excessive, although he understood the attitude. 

Literature is replete with characters whose view of their fellow men and women is similar to the one that Sullivan imputes to Beethoven. Obviously, an author who delineates such a character believes in the existence of what I have called "an inconvenient, unpleasant truth." Obviously, such an author has also "observed the existence of thoughts like those... both in himself and in others." 

It would be hard to find among authors a worse case of hypertrophied ego than that of George Bernard Shaw. In his writings he lays down the law on every subject, and points out that everyone else's opinions are ridiculous. To create the character of a superior person such as those discussed here, he needed only to observe himself. Thus, for example, Caesar and Cleopatra begins with Julius Caesar's soliloquy addressed to the Sphinx: 

               CAESAR: Hail, Sphinx: salutation from Julius Caesar. I have wandered in many lands, 
               seeking the lost regions from which my birth into this world exiled me, and the 
               company of creatures such as myself. I have found flocks and pastures, men and 
               cities, but no other Caesar, no air native to me, no man kindred to me, none who can 
               do my day's deed, and think my night's thought. In the little world yonder, 
               Sphinx, my place is as high as yours in this great desert... Sphinx, you and I, 
               strangers to the race of men, are no strangers to one another. 

Professor Higgins in Pygmalion is less poetic, but not less egocentric. The following conversation occurs in Act 2: 

               PICKERING: Does it occur to you, Higgins, that the girl has some feelings? 
               HIGGINS: Oh no, I don't think so. Not any feelings that we need bother about... 
               MRS. PEARCE: I want to know on what terms the girl is to be here. Is she to have any 
                         wages? And what is to become of her when you've finished your teaching? You 
                         must look ahead a little. 
               HIGGINS: What's to become of her if I leave her in the gutter? Tell me that, Mrs. 
                         Pearce. 
               MRS. PEARCE: That's her own business, not yours, Mr. Higgins. 
               HIGGINS: Well, when I've done with her, we can throw her back into the gutter; and 
                         then it will be her own business again; so that's all right. 

Toward the end of the play, in Act 5, Higgins makes a definitive statement: "I can do without anybody. I have my own soul: my own spark of divine fire." 

Somerset Maugham's stock in trade is precisely the revelation of "inconvenient, unpleasant truths" about his characters. For example, the woman in the short story Footprints in the Jungle is described by another character in these words: "
There was something in her voice that seemed to mean: You're a bit of a damned fool, my lad, but you're not a bad sort and upon my soul I rather like you. "

Maugham's fictionalized biography of Paul Gauguin, The Moon and Sixpence, is predicated on the premise that Gauguin was such a superior person. In Chapter 14, the narrator says of the Gauguin-like protagonist: 
"But here was a man who sincerely did not mind what people thought of him, and so convention had no hold on him. " At the end of this chapter, the narrator relates the conclusion of their conversation. (Amy is the wife that the protagonist deserted in order to become a painter.) 

               The last words he said to me when I bade him good-night were: "Tell Amy it's no good 
               coming after me."... 
                         "My own  impression is that she's well rid of you," I said. 
                         "M
y dear fellow, I only hope you'll be able to make her see it. But women are     
               very unintelligent." 

In Chapter 24 of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, the heroine of the novel (who I have always believed personifies Jane Austen herself, and her fantasy of falling in love with a man worthy of her) tells her sister: 

               There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well. The more I 
               see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of 
               the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be 
               placed on the appearance of either merit or sense. 

At the beginning of Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning for Central London is conducting a group of new students on a tour. 

               "Just to give you a general idea," he would explain to them. For of course some sort of 
               general idea they must have if they were to do their work intelligently -- though as little 
               of one, if they were to be good  and happy members of society, as possible. For 
               particulars, as everyone knows, make for virtue and happiness; generalities are 
               intellectually necessary evils. Not philosophers, but fret-sawyers and stamp 
               collectors compose the backbone of society. 

These few sentences seem to be an oversight, a slip of the pen, because they do not conform to the objective, indifferent narrative voice in the rest of the book. In the dystopia that Huxley invented, there are no fret-sawyers, no stamp collectors, and certainly no philosophers. People are grown in bottles, and brainwashed beginning even while they are still embryos (in the very manufactory the students are touring). This ensures that they will automatically be "good and happy members of society." It seems that Huxley forgot himself for a moment, when his profoundly cynical contempt for the human race got the better of him. 

The foregoing examples are quite obvious, but the last example I wish to present is not so: the example of Hamlet. Now I am on thin ice. Just as I dismissed Sullivan as un-professional, so real literary critics may dismiss me. On the other hand, just as I thought that Sullivan, in spite of his shortcomings, had one useful insight -- so perhaps I have stumbled upon one useful insight in spite of my un-professional absurdities. I can only say, in all humility: it's only a suggestion. 

Perhaps part of Hamlet's problem is the fact that he is, in a sense, alone. In the same way, for example, that Othello is the only black man surrounded by whites, Hamlet is a person of superior intelligence surrounded by people of lesser intelligence, and he has the characteristic impatient contempt for them. Perhaps this is a trait of Hamlet's character because Shakespeare himself was such a superior intellect, and knew all about it from personal experience. After all, one aspect of Shakespeare's genius is his delineation of complex true-to-life characters. Some of the most famous of these are all the more amazing, because he could not have had any first-hand experience of living models. To mention just a few examples: Richard III, Brutus, Othello, Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra. Is it inconceivable that he created a character with a trait that was probably part of his own personality? 

I do not claim that this is an explanation of everything in Hamlet. How could it be? At best, it might be an additional insight, an additional level of the complexity and ambiguity of the play and of the character of its protagonist. At any rate, I believe I am on sure ground when I say that it is more plausible than many other supposedly elucidatory insights based on what I consider to be wrong-headed misunderstandings or temporary fads, such as:
     H
amlet is not merely pretending insanity, but really insane. 
     Hamlet is the victim of his Oedipus complex.
      Hamlet unconsciously assumes the role of phallus (in Desire and the Interpretation of Desire 
               in "Hamlet"
by Jacques Lacan). 
     Hamlet is a homosexual. With typical male chauvinism, Hamlet assumes that his mother is 
               guilty, without a shred of evidence. 
     Hamlet is a woman who spends her life disguised as a man (in the book The Mystery of 
               Hamlet
by E.P. Vining, made into a silent movie starring Asta Nielsen). 
     Hamlet is a minor character in a play about Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern (in the play by Tom
               Stoppard). 
-- and so on ad nauseam. 

First of all: in Act 2, Scene 2, Hamlet says: "...and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me; nor woman neither," This has a double meaning. like everything else in the play. In the context of the scene, this is no more than Hamlet's participation in a flippant conversation with Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern, where all three affect the trendy cynicism of college students. On the other hand, Rosenkrantz is apparently disconcerted by Hamlet's vehemence and smiles awkwardly, which is why Hamlet finishes his sentence with "though by your smiling you seem to say so." Perhaps Hamlet is a bit carried away. He is not yet wary of Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern as possible assassins, and he lets slip his low opinion of humanity in no uncertain terms -- just like the other people quoted above, real and fictional: 

Hamlet's beloved friend, Horatio, is the only person he can trust -- but even he, unfortunately, is not capable of sharing Hamlet's intellectual world. Hamlet's famous line spoken to Horatio in Act 1, Scene 5, also has a double meaning. "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamed of in your philosophy." Even the obvious meaning is patronizing: Hamlet implies that Horatio can obey him, and swear not to speak of the ghost, without bothering his head about knowing what the ghost said. However, there is also a more general implication, disparaging Horatio's breadth of understanding. 

Throughout the play, Hamlet does not hide his disdain for other people. He bullies them with verbal fencing, and in most cases it is beyond their ability to retaliate. For example, in Act 3, Scene 2, he sneers at Rosenkrantz, who after all is only the innocent messenger: 

               HAMLET: My mother, you say -- 
               ROSENKRANTZ: Then thus she says: your behavior hath struck her into amazement 
                         and admiration. 
               HAMLET: O wonderful son, that can so stonish a mother! But is there no sequel at the
                         heels of this mother's admiration? Impart. 
               ROSENKRANTZ: She desires to speak with you in her closet ere you go to bed. 
               HAMLET: We shall obey, were she ten times our mother. 

In Act 3, Scene 2, he has no mercy on Ophelia: 

               HAMLET: Lady, shall I lie in your lap? 
               OPHELIA: No, my lord. 
               HAMLET: I mean, my head upon your lap? 
               OPHELIA: Ay, my lord. 
               HAMLET: Do you think I meant country matters? 
               OPHELIA: I think nothing, my lord. 
               HAMLET: That's a fair thought to lie between maids' legs. 
               OPHELIA: What is, my lord? 
               HAMLET: Nothing 

In Act 5, Scene 2, the court fop Osric is Hamlet's sitting duck: 

               HAMLET: Put your bonnet to his right use. 'Tis for the head. 
               OSRIC: I thank your lordship, it is very hot. 
               HAMLET: No, believe me, 'tis very cold; the wind is northerly. 
               OSRIC: It is indifferent cold, my lord, indeed. 
               HAMLET: But yet methinks it is very sultry and hot for my complexion. 
               OSRIC: Exceedingly, my lord; it is very sultry, as 'twere -- I cannot tell how. 

In these cases -- especially that of Osric -- it could be objected that Hamlet is a prince, and as such has the immunity of royalty, and that his interlocutors dare not reply in kind. But he speaks to the king with the same contempt. Hamlet's very first words in Act 1, Scene 2, are complicated puns. It seems that Hamlet, in spite of his well-known "melancholy", derives a sadistic pleasure from the fact that the king is not clever enough to understand what he is saying: 

               KING: But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son -- 
               HAMLET: [aside] A little more than kin, and less than kind. 
               KING: How is it that the clouds still hang on you? 
               HAMLET: Not so, my lord. I am too much in the sun. 

"More than kin" indicates that Hamlet is now both the king's nephew and his stepson. "Kind" means "benign" but also "type" -- Hamlet neither feels kindly toward the king, nor is he the same kind of person. The whole sentence also refers to the fact that "kin+d=kind" -- thus Hamlet is a little more than "kin" but not quite enough more to change it into "kind". Hamlet's next line, beyond its obvious meaning that he is in mourning and therefore would prefer the shadows, is a pun on "sun/son": Hamlet could do with less sunlight of royal favor, and also less reminders that he is now the king's stepson. 

In Act 3, Scene 2, there is another such exchange: 

               KING: How fares our cousin Hamlet? 
               HAMLET: Excellent, i'faith, of the chameleon's dish; I eat the air, promise-crammed; 
                         you cannot feed capons so. 
               KING: I have nothing with this answer, Hamlet; these words are not mine. 
               HAMLET: No, nor mine now. 

Hamlet puns on the word "fare". The king means "How goes it with you?" but Hamlet purposely answers as though the king meant "What do you eat?" (It was believed that chameleons needed no other food but air.) The king is at a loss, and quite unaware that he is the butt of a subtle joke. 

Even when the subject is murder, in Act 4, Scene 3, Hamlet continues to play word games with the king 

               KING: Now, Hamlet, where's Polonius? 
               HAMLET: At supper. 
               KING: At supper? Where? 
               HAMLET: Not where he eats, but where he's eaten. A certain convocation of politic 
                         worms are e'en at him.

The irksome stupidity of Polonius seems to provoke Hamlet to excessive verbal sadism. Polonius would naturally irritate a person of superior intelligence who does not suffer fools gladly. In act 2, Scene 2, Hamlet merciessly makes fun of Polonius:

               POLONIUS: What do you read, my lord? 
               HAMLET: Words, words, words. 
               POLONIUS: What is the matter, my lord? 
               HAMLET: Between who? 
               POLONIUS: I mean the matter that you read, my lord. 
               HAMLET: Slanders, sir; for the satirical rogue says here that old men have gray 
                         beards, that their faces are wrinkled, their eyes purging thick amber and plum-
                         tree gum, and that they have a plentiful lack of wit together with most weak 
                         hams. 

When they converse again in Act 3, Scene 2, one almost feels sorry for Polonius: 

               POLONIUS: My lord, the Queen would speak with you, and presently. 
               HAMLET: Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in shape of a camel? 
               POLONIUS: By th'mass and 'tis, like a camel indeed. 
               HAMLET: Methinks it is like a weasel. 
               POLONIUS: It is backed like a weasel. 
               HAMLET: Or like a whale. 
               POLONIUS: Very like a whale.  
               HAMLET: Then I will come to my mother by and by. 

All these dialogues are examples of Hamlet's razor-sharp wit at the expense of his interlocutors -- not of Hamlet pretending to be mad. Surely Shakespeare (and therefore also Hamlet) knew that nimble-witted verbal fencing, so subtle and clever that nobody can keep pace with it, is not a symptom of madness. For that matter, probably all the other characters in the play also know this. They need only compare Hamlet's acuity with the mad Ophelia, babbling nonsense and singing snatches of songs. The only exception is Polonius, and the fact that he believes that subtle puns that are beyond his comprehension must be signs of madness, is just another example of his hopeless stupidity. 

Hamlet tells Horatio, in Act 1, Scene 5, how he intends to disguise his intentions: "(As I perchance hereafter shall think meet / To put an antic disposition on.)" This does not necessarily mean that he will pretend to be mad. On the contrary, that is not the primary meaning of "antic". It is more probable that this means that he will be -- literally -- clowning. Hamlet's verbal acrobatics resemble nothing so much as the language of Shakespeare's clowns. 

The only person who can cope with Hamlet's verbal fencing, who gives as good as he gets, is the grave-digger in Act 5, Scene 1. I can think of three possible explanations for this: 
          1. The grave-digger speaks of "young Hamlet" in the third person, and so perhaps he does not know with whom he is speaking (but this is not as probable as the explanation that this is part of his jesting); 
          2. The grave-digger is himself a clown, and so when he is addressed as a clown he responds as a clown, and enters into a clowning dialogue; 
          3. (this is my favorite) The grave-digger is the only other character in the play whose intelligence equals that of Hamlet. 

If my suggestion is valid, Hamlet is depicted as a person of unusually high intelligence. This gives an additional meaning to his expressions of contempt. In addition, it suggests that Hamlet is depicted as not merely "melancholy" but as suffering from the terrifying loneliness to which such people are subject. Hamlet can trust only one person -- Horatio -- but even so, cannot confide in him. 

Hamlet's uneasiness is not neurotic, but a clear-headed recognition of the facts. The king, who he knows to be a murderer, almost succeeded in his plot to have Hamlet assassinated. Others are trying to have him pronounced insane. (I am reminded of Yossarian in Catch 22 by Joseph Heller, who insists that he is not paranoid: the Germans are really trying to kill him.) 

No wonder Hamlet cannot make up is mind. Instead, he lashes out verbally in all directions. He is not a man of action, so that he does not know how to make a clean job of it. In the end, he just manages to kill the king in a messy bloody free-for-all in which almost everyone is killed, including himself.