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Hamlet at Baylor

The pits and pinnacles of teaching

by James Soderholm 

for Francis W. Soderholm

Let me begin with the low point of my teaching career at Baylor University. I’ll end with its high point. The low point occurred during a lecture on Hamlet about two years ago. I was presenting Hamlet’s ruminations about life and death in his famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy. I asked my sophomores to imagine a roommate who one day decides that “not to be” is preferable to living, and who then kills himself or herself.

At this point, a student chortled and then mumbled “4.0.” I wasn’t sure what he said, so I asked him to repeat himself. He did: “4.0.” Some of his classmates giggled while others shifted in their seats.

I asked him to explain the meaning of “4.0.” Without any embarrassment he explained that it was a policy at Baylor to give a student an automatic 4.0 for the semester if his or her roommate committed suicide. There were more giggles, more uncomfortable shifting as some of the students saw how appalled I was. “You’re kidding,” I said helplessly, incredulously. He wasn’t.

I don’t know if this policy was actually in effect. It doesn’t even matter. All that mattered to me at that moment was the horrible lack of imagination and curiosity on the part of this student. I was trying to put him in touch with one of the greatest dramatic minds in the history of the planet while he was daydreaming about how someone’s suicide might get him an easy 4.0. Or perhaps he was recalling the B movie Dead Man on Campus, which takes this grim idea for its premise. And if a professor kills himself, do all his students get 4.0s? If so, ’tis a consummation devoutly to be wished, at least among the student body. After this student’s disastrous remark, it was all I could do to stay in the lecture room and finish my talk on Hamlet.


The Probing Mind

I began to see that the lack of literary curiosity is the other extreme of Hamlet’s obsessive curiosity. Like a pre-Socratic philosopher, Hamlet cannot stop wondering about the universe he lives in; indeed, he wonders as he wanders until he has sufficiently courted what Wallace Stevens calls “the interior paramour” by virtue of which “We say God and the imagination are one.” But how can you make students fall in love with this interior paramour—or even notice it—when they are preoccupied with the exterior paramours and rote pieties: attachments to the 4.0, to law, to medicine, to business (not to mention Pro Ecclesia, Pro Texana—Baylor’s seal of righteous self-approval). It’s impossible to force people to fall in love, even or especially with their own minds. The best I can hope to do is show my students how Hamlet’s mind works and what makes it so alive to its own curious twists and turns. To become curious is to learn how to tease yourself. It is also to learn how to get through some long nights with only your imagination to keep you company.

Hamlet’s mind teases itself with disjunctions—“To be or not to be” being the most famous. He also says, “. . . there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. . . .” Here is a dangerous idea that forms the opposite of what most college students, particularly those at some religious institutions, are trained to believe. Most of us grow up believing that “good” and “bad” are moral absolutes transcending what we think about them. But Hamlet suggests that thinking about good and bad determines their essence, or rather that good and bad have no essence until our thinking about them confers essence. For Hamlet, thinking precedes essence. This idea is decidedly not what most of us believe, and yet it is the very condition of possibility of thinking antithetically about anything. In Hamlet’s mind, the firmament, “fretted with golden fire,” becomes “a congregation of foul vapors,” paragons become animals, quintessences dust. Let’s move further into this antithetical, antifundamentalist mind, and take note of its literary offspring.

I think of Hamlet as saying, “The mind is my polis. I shall not want.” Although Elsinore is in fact his city-state, Hamlet takes the entire cosmos for his polis, and in this sense he is what Paul Cantor calls “the cosmopolitan prince.” The capaciousness and existential prowess of this mind becomes both heroized and demonized when Milton’s Satan, having been flung into hell, cheers himself up when he proclaims: “The mind is its own place and in itself / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.” This intellectual plasticity reaffirms Hamlet’s idea that the mind can determine what will count as good or bad. Dazzled by Milton’s heroic depiction of Satan, a few Romantic poets would see him as a Promethean figure, a being who could ascend the brightest heaven of invention through the sheer power of mind. Byron’s Manfred steals some of Satan’s fire when, on the brink of his self-willed death, he proclaims: “The mind which is immortal makes itself/ Requital for its good or evil thoughts— / is its own origin and end— / And its own place and time. . . .” One comes across a similar version of this mental expansiveness in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness when it occurs to Marlow that “The mind of man is capable of anything—because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future.” For a different slant, one must always recall Emily Dickinson: “The Brain is just the weight of God / For Heft them—Pound for Pound— / And they will differ—if they do— / As Syllable from Sound.”

The mind’s heftiness has had its skeptics. We should recall Dr. Johnson’s remark after having cited Satan’s lines about the mind’s making a heaven of hell. We must remember, Dr. Johnson says, “that Satan is a liar.” Johnson is trying to kick the stone and bring us all back to the reality of moral absolutes. But, in an important sense, he is missing the point. Hamlet, Satan, Manfred, and Marlow are not liars: they are thought experiments. They are Shakespeare, Milton, Byron, and Conrad’s means of wondering what it would be like to have a mind that could dream up the world it lives and moves in. Cosmopolitanism is the will to invent many states of mind and try them on for size the same way Greek actors would select a mask, or persona, to wear throughout the play. One of William Blake’s most interesting thought experiments performed a marriage of heaven and hell. Like all interesting marriages, this one carries us beyond what we are. Emily Dickinson married only her own wildly heterodox mind, no other paramour being remotely as interesting as the interior one: short, dark, and dashing.

A mind worshiping the 4.0 is not particularly eager to think in elastic ways, but teachers are in the business of stretching the imaginations of those who may be impaled on the stick of careerism or cozily napping in the upholstery of received doctrine. The university is supposed to be a cosmos of ideas, a place as varied and large as Hamlet’s mind. Dogma and doctrine put braces on the ability to think oppositely, to imagine what is radically different from oneself and one’s cherished beliefs. Haunted by the ghost of his dead father, and then haunted by the specter of his own living mind, Hamlet understands that there are more things on heaven and earth than are dreamt of in philosophy, or in theology.


The University’s Role

Hamlet was probably an exceptional student at Wittenberg, where overreaching and the Protestant spirit flourished in a way that has not been replicated in the universities presumably emerging from the Reformation. At particularly doctrinaire universities, it’s not clear that any kind of thinking, protesting, or loving differently is encouraged or even tolerated. At Baylor, for example, Hamlet might have wanted to take a course on yoga, but he would not find it listed as such in the catalogue because at this university yoga may end up stretching the mind as well as the body in the direction of the obviously false religions of the East. Hamlet may also have wanted to experiment with risqué condiments in the cafeteria, but he would have had no chance to try Grey Poupon mustard. A few years ago—I’ve been told—an offended student wrote a letter to the student newspaper complaining about Grey Poupon mustard packets. The reason for the complaint? Written on these little packets it says: “Made with White Wine.” Responding to this complaint, the administration pulled all the packets of Grey Poupon. We now must suffer the insipidly American and paradoxically named “French’s” mustard.

As for compulsory piety—otherwise known as “chapel forum,” Hamlet would have sat there politely while casting about in the galaxy of his spacious mind for something to divert him. Even the spectacle of Christian country music, while ominously amusing, would fail to entertain him. Eventually, he would stop attending all his courses and instead spend time just outside this building, becoming Prince of the Fountainheads and rolling his imported Danish tobacco. After a time, he would become leader of the Noze brothers and contribute a few satiric masterpieces to lengthen The Rope.1 But finally Hamlet would wander off by himself, a dreamy bookworm unfit for the social rituals and routines of American college life. I can see him wandering in circles in the Armstrong-Browning Library’s hall of meditation, reciting the phrase, “The priesthood of the thinker . . . the priesthood of the thinker.” Piety takes many forms, but none of them has anything to do with thinking experimentally or individually. Hamlet is skeptical of all misplaced pieties. And the censorship of sinful mustard certainly seems like piety that’s been oddly misplaced.

The mustard example may seem trivial until we consider that the word sapiens in Homo sapiens comes from sapientia, the word root that underlies both knowledge and the sense of taste as flavor, so that “sapid” or flavorful is the opposite of “vapid” or flavorless, or literally, “tasteless.” As Homo sapiens, we have a certain taste for knowledge, especially experiential knowledge, that is, knowledge acquired from the use of our senses, including our sense of taste. Unless we are allowed to expand our tastes by examining a variety of subjects and approaches, we will find ourselves remaining narrow-minded, our intellectual palates restricted to a diet of blandness, whether it comes to course offerings, religious practices, sexual preferences, or cafeteria condiments. We rise above mere animals to become paragons of animals when we satisfy this healthy desire to taste everything around us, almost like children who at a certain age try to put everything in their mouths. Intellectuals are omnivores. Cosmopolitan intellectuals try to put whole worlds into the their hands and into their minds. After having tasted everything, such people then learn to discriminate, to discern, that is, to think—we like to say—circles around those who have had their diet limited to vapid orthodoxies.

Hamlet has a mind that goes “before and after”—it enlarges its discourse to include human history, to see Caesar turned to clay, to see Alexander turned to dust to stop up a beer barrel. To put it another way, Hamlet does not have a fear of fossils. Indeed, his mind seizes upon fossils with a curiosity that even Hamlet’s closest friend, Horatio, finds a little disturbing. When Hamlet uses his imagination to trace the noble dust of Alexander till he finds it stopping up a bunghole, his friend replies: “’Twere to consider too curiously to consider so.” But Hamlet’s imagination won’t be chastised. His mind has a diligence for its tasks, an imaginative tenacity that insists on seeing the funeral baked meats coldly served up at the marriage tables; it also must narrate how “a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar.” In Hamlet’s mind, narrative time opens up onto the widest horizons until the absurd presents itself as a stranger. But Hamlet instructs us to welcome strangers. For there is finally nothing strange to the mind that has taken the cosmos for its polis; or rather, everything is potentially strange, and therefore wonderful, and open to examination and meditation. On such minds, we say, nothing is lost. Strangers, even dead ones, are always welcome. The gorge may rise at the contemplation of fossilizing friends, but Hamlet cannot keep his curiosity from pursuing mortality with archeological wistfulness. For it turns out that the unearthed skull is really an old friend. And skulls far older than Yorick’s have turned out to be friends of the family of hominids. I have a photo of a very cheerful Louis Leakey holding a skull he found, an ancestor, he believed, of Homo sapiens that he discovered in Tanzania, where Olduvai Gorge rose to his probing hands. His wife, Mary Leakey, would make the truly important discovery, but both of them owe something of their curiosity to Shakespeare’s invention of Hamlet, who first taught us how to be at once sad and excited by the skulls we may happen to meet.


Gratification and Inspiration

I said I would end with the high point of my teaching experience at Baylor, and so I shall. After my last class on Hamlet in the spring of 2000 one student remained and detained me for a few extraordinary minutes. She wanted to share her ideas on Hamlet and Ophelia. As she talked she grew more and more animated. In fact, she was nearly beside herself with intellectual excitement, her head filled with the fireworks of thought-experiments igniting one another. Even as she was discussing those external paramours of Shakespeare’s play, her interior paramour was forming like a crystal, or a prism, refracting the light of her imagination. Suddenly Mr. 4.0 flashed into my mind, for this young woman was the opposite of the young man who had murdered Hamlet one day the year before. Her mind and ears were wide open to everything around her. Literature possessed her young soul, filling her with the intense archeology of words. I knew I was still on the hook to turn 4.0 boy into wonder girl: to make the stone desire. But it is only because of the fraction of students who think on their own, who like thinking, who enjoy picking through the bones of the past—it is only because of these beautifully strange, deeply unorthodox students that I have any desire to go back into the classroom, crack open Hamlet, and start the lecture. But my time has passed.


1. “Fountainheads” are the very small and vaguely bohemian group of students who offer resistance to the elite Baptist dogmatists at Baylor. Among the Fountainheads one may find certain members of the “Noze Brotherhood.” The Rope is their satiric contribution, no sooner published than confiscated by the administrators.

This article is an abridged version of a lecture the author delivered at Baylor University on April 28, 2000. Having resigned his position at Baylor, James Soderholm is now a Fulbright Scholar at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic.

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