Shakespeare’s Lad

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William Shakespeare’s appeal in his own time was not just to an educated elite, but across the board.  He had the common touch, picking up on basic human realities, even when he referenced high culture.  The human reality he alludes too in Sonnet 153 is very basic.

But at my mistress’ eye Love’s brand new-fired,
The boy for trial needs would touch my breast;

William Shakespeare Sonnet 153

The cubit long Cupid, the boy from Sonnet !53, who,when awakened, could touch Shakespeare’s breast, is a masterpiece, of a very common type of male banter; the impulse to exaggerate the size, and staying power of the aroused penis.

Shakespeare follows up his claim that the boy had touched his breast, with a claim about his boy’s staying power. A  bath could not cure his discomfort. He then makes the claim that only his mistress can cure his problem.

I, sick withal, the help of bath desired,
And thither hied, a sad distempered guest,
But found no cure, the bath for my help lies
Where Cupid got new fire; my mistress’ eyes.

William Shakespeare Sonnet 153

I think it unlikely that the first audiences for this poem, unaware, as they were, of listening to the words of the immortal bard, would have interpreted his cure literally, unless of course his mistress was there.  Then the joke might be that a dirty look from her could cure his ardour, and that he despite his allegedly very large penis was well and truly henpecked.

It is sometimes claimed that the size of the human penis, is involved in the formation of male dominance hierarchies, i.e. pecking order, and that this effect continues to the modern day.  The features that are boasted about in Shakespeare’s poem, the length and staying power of the erection, are features that would indicate a high level of health in the person displaying them.

Attacking an opponent able to hold such an erection would be contraindicated, and this fact should be useful in reducing aggressive behaviour.  Even better is the fact that the perspective from which the male of the species observes his own penis, means that it appears shorter in comparison to one seen from a different angle. (For men a glance in the mirror, should show that their reflection is relatively better endowed than they are – an optical illusion.)

But Shakespeare isn’t doing show and tell, and his audience would have been well aware that his claims were false.

The type of banter that Shakespeare is using enables the forming of social bonds, and the reduction of within group aggression. His unbelievable claims of cock supremacy, and his joke admission of being under female control, means that without admitting or accepting a low position in the pecking order, he has presented himself as no threat.

The laughter inducing capability of the virtual penis is more effective than the actual, in conflict reduction.

A large penis may be indicative of good health, and may initially discourage challenges to its possessor’s position in the social hierarchy.  But human beings are capable of using more than one gauge of fitness. And while Shakespeare may or may not have had a large penis,he certainly had a large wit.

The  penis isn’t the problem. In it’s symbolic role in male group dynamics, it may be a fairly effective agent for aggression reduction.

What Shakespeare was doing is related to, but opposite in nature to what is, within British and Irish culture anyway, described as willy waving.

Willy waving is a metaphor describing the behaviour of those who try to gain and keep status within their own social group, not by direct intra-group competition, but by proving their superiority against  those not in their group. Those doing so can pick any symbol that applies to their group, but not to the other, and use this as evidence of the inferiority of the other.  Status is then gained within the group by those making the most zealous attempts to remind the other of their inferior status, in a metaphorical or sometimes actual display of the symbol of authority.

Who knows, the symbol might even be an actual penis.

This waving of the group penis, can lead to inter-community  violence.  

This cartoon from Steve Bell of the Guardian links penis waving with the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris, and is making the point that the killers were impotent to stop the voices of the murdered men.

At a literal level it is horrifically false.  The Kouachi brothers shot straight, and the cartoonists are dead. What they have already said is all they will ever say, and they are interpreted through the manner of their death, as though the most important part of their life was that which in the eyes of the gunmen made them legitimate targets.

The murders were  interpreted not as an attack on human life, but ona defining symbol of our Western culture, free speech.

The human reality of the  marginalized socially disadvantaged Kouachi brothers, was ignored, as too unimportant a target for the outpouring of grief and anger that followed these killings.  On the 11th January 2015, four days after the attack, and two days after the murderers had been killed by French police, millions of people including world leaders marched through Paris against terrorism and in support of free speech.

For many these killings were seen as an attack on free speech and the freedom of the West. A threat sufficient to demand penis rattling displays of defiance, in many cases long after the young men who had carried out the murders were in any position to be offended by their actions.

Marc Randazza who blogs at The Legal Satyricon, in the title of his post  from the day of the murder makes his penis waving explicit; issuing the cry of the impotent would be rapist, and the man in the dirty mac, against the killers, who clearly would have had nothing more urgent to do than read his blog. Then posting, among others, some sexually degrading images, images. reminiscent of some of the  photographs that came out of American held Abu Ghraib prison, cartoons of a man of Middle-Eastern appearance wearing a turban,  taken from back copies of Charlie Hebdo.

He makes the assumption that the goal of the Kouachi brothers was to force we freedom loving Westerners to give up our right to insult the culture and religion of the other, with the cartoonists  being collateral damage in the struggle of international Islam to deny him this most important facet of  free speech.

I am inclined to the assumption that the killers succeeded in what they intended to do.  Their objective was to kill, not deny the cartoonists free speech. That these disadvantaged young men, at the bottom of the pecking order, not just within French society but within their own community, had decided to go out in a blaze of glory.  And in this they succeeded, dying like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, in suicide by gendarme.

These young men were far down the pecking order of their community.  Those Muslims calling for death to those who disrespect the Prophet, are  further up in the social hierarchy. And it is likely that such a call, and the subsequent media attention, increases their profile within their own community.

To think that their main aim in this is to stop infidels drawing pictures of the Prophet is to fail to understand factionalism.

Community leaders acquire power through the amount of influence they have within their own faction.   As we in Northern Ireland have good reason to know verbal attacks on people, not of their community, by wannabe somebodies, are more likely to be driven by a desire to foster the hive mentality within their own community, than by the behaviour of the other.

We wave our flag, they respond to the threat by waving theirs.  Demonstrations ensue followed by rioting, as those  low down in the pecking order of their own communities assert themselves against the other.

The people within the factions experience a greater sense of solidarity as they work together to oppose the other, and community leaders acquire a great deal more power than they would have, if their followers, instead of focusing  on the evil of the opposing faction, were scrutinizing the leaders.The main threat to the position of  the leader comes from those, who are even more vitriolic in their condemnation of the other..  So the hate rhetoric spirals on both sides.  And where there is hate rhetoric, violence follows.

Atheist blogger J.T. Eberhard had not a approved of  the American Freedom Defense Initiative’s recent draw Muhammad competition, understanding it  to be pointless offending for the sake of offending, rather than a defence of free speech..

He however approved of the actual winner of the competition,: a cartoon of an Uncle Abanazar/genie of the lamp type figure meant presumably to represent Muhammad, with a speech bubble saying, “You can’t draw me,” being drawn by a hand, with a speech bubble saying,”That’s why I draw you.”

He thinks it sends the message to those issuing fatwas, that if they want free speech advocates to stop drawing Muhammad, then they should stop threatening violence.

These people  are acquiring power by complaining about the perfidy of the infidel.  Why would they want you to stop?  The presence of an external focus for dissatisfaction binds their followers together, and distracts them from questioning their leaders’ dictates. And the power-seeking complainants are not the ones  doing the dying.

The irony of the situation is that those proponents of free speech,such as Marc Randazza, who insist on producing or reproducing images of Muhammad to demonstrate that they cannot be intimidated, are by their own account, letting their actions be controlled by  Muslim extremists. They are only producing or reproducing pictures because they have been told not to.

The American Freedom Defense Initiative’s winning cartoon, tells a different and I think more accurate story.  This cartoon is subtly off message. It is the hand drawing the Uncle Abanazar/genie figure that is in control of the situation.  It has drawn the man and put the words into his mouth, ‘You can’t draw me.’

The anti-Islamists are bonding on the perfidy of the other. The actual reality of Islam is irrelevant. They are being driven by the Islam of their imagination, and like Scientific Creationists explaining the Grand Canyon, all facts will fit the conspiracy theory on which they have bonded.

The type of confirmation bias that  they are exhibiting is also a feature of religion, and it is a temptation to refer to them as religious nutters.  But the behaviour, they are exhibiting,factionalism, also exists in the secular world, and in the interests of clarity, it would be more accurate to refer to them as factionalist nutters.

The real penis may have had a function in limiting within group conflict, in our evolutionary past and even now.  The masturbatory fantasy of the factionalist, may also serve to limit within group conflict, by focusing on the evil of the other, and may have done little harm, when the world was big enough, and we were nomadic enough  to avoid the other. It may even have been a causal factor in our survival, when all the other species of upright ape became extinct; the adaptation that ensured that our species was well spread out and that all our eggs were not in one basket.

In our increasingly crowded world it is a dangerous luxury, and one that as Jonathan Swift pointed out in, An Argument Against Abolishing Christianity  1708,  will not be obliterated by abolishing religion.   

Factionalism has the power to make Charlies of us all.  It is the driving force that calls us to take sides, and hand out white feathers to those who do not join in, in displaying our naked contempt of the other.

It is the driving force that can make the destruction of human life appear a virtuous act, providing that it is the life of the other that is taken.

It is why Wendy Dackson who blogs at Past Christian was, although I agreed with her at the time, wrong when she proclaimed, “Je ne suis pas Charlie.”

In a world where factionalism, with its ultimate disrespect for the human, is rooted deep in our nature, anyone of us could suffer the fate of the murdered men and woman, of Charlie Hebdo.

It is factionalism: not religion nor any other belief system, that is the enemy. This part of our nature, as the history of Christianity should tell us, has the power to corrupt any belief system, no matter how peaceable its origins are.

We are all potentially Charlie, just as we are all potentially the Kouachi brothers.  The victims of a human nature, that  has the power to consign us all to hell.

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