Sunday, July 09, 2006

metempsychosis and other mysteries

In our household, we all like Buffy, The Vampire Slayer. One of us owns the first three seasons on DVD. We've been viewing and re-viewing Season Three over the past month or so. This season has an episode called EarShot which has a scene that's stuck with me. Through an accident, Buffy has the ability to hear other peoples' thoughts. At first intrigued, then eager to exploit her temporary gift, she learns at the end of the episode that people are burdened with too much confusion, despair, worry, and self-doubt for her to bear. (This insight is a fairly typical Joss Whedon take-home.)

The scene takes place in an English Lit class. As writer Jane Espenson explains in commentary that accompanies the episode, Joss re-wrote her original text to make it integrate more tightly with the plot. The way he did this has typical Joss flair. Using telepathy Buffy listens to the inner dialogues of the teacher and students and is able to simulate an academic brilliance she wishes she really had. They're discussing Shakespeare's Othello and the teacher asks what motivates Iago. Buffy gives a couple of ideas about this and says "Well, he, um, he sort of admits himself that his motive are... spurious! He, um, he does things because he, he enjoys them. It's like he's not, he's not really a person. He's a, the dark half of Othello himself." (The exclamation point follows the word spurious because it's a word Buffy picked up from the teacher's thoughts but does not herself understand.) Iago-as-dark-half-of-Othello turns out to be the main theme of the teacher's dissertation. It's that literary turn - Iago-within-Othello - that's stuck with me since viewing the episode. I've reproduced the text of the scene below.

It's simply nice of itself, but it also calls to mind what James Joyce made of the theme in Ulysses. In the book's opening section, Telemachus, and again in the ninth, Scylla & Charybdis, Joyce shows us Stephen's ingenious take on the Joss-Othello one-person-within-another theme. In Telemachus we learn it's Stephen's conceit that, as Buck Mulligan puts it, "Hamlet's grandson is Shakespeare's grandfather and that he himself is the ghost of his own father." (I've reproduced this excellent dialogue below.) In Scylla & Charybdis Stephen's in the National Library accompanied by scholars whom we suspect he'd like to impress. He offers a reading of Hamlet which merges the ghostly selves of Hamlet and his father the dead king, Shakespeare and his dead son Hamnet, Shakespeare acting the role King Hamlet on stage and becoming thereby the character's ghost - ghost of a ghost, and Shakespeare as "murdered" father, victim of his absent, unfaithful wife.

There isn't an exact Joss-Joyce correspondence since Iago is neither father nor, except perhaps metaphorically, son to Othello. Still, a one-person-in-another mystery is the theme of both. And of course both have us hearing inner as well as spoken dialogue.

As you'd expect, Joyce's development is much richer and more nuanced than Joss's; how could it be otherwise? But both provoke thought, do they not?


Here is the Buffy scene:
Cut to Buffy in literature class.
BUFFY Jealousy! Willow is seated to her right, with Xander behind her. Nancy, annoying miss-know-it-all is to Buffy's left. The teacher walks around the room.
TEACHER Buffy. Right. Very good.
NANCY (V.O.) I knew that.
TEACHER Jealousy clearly is the tool that Iago uses to undo Othello. But what's his motivation? What reason does Iago give for destroying his superior officer?
NANCY (V.O.) Cassio has my place. Twix my sheets, he's done my office.
BUFFY Well, he was passed over for promotion. Cassio was picked instead and people were saying that Othello slept with his wife.
WILLOW (V.O.) Buffy did the reading? Buffy understood the reading?
XANDER (V.O.) When did she study? Was I supposed to study? Ms. Murray's kinda hot.
NANCY (V.O.) I was gonna say Cassio. Uh, I hate her.
TEACHER Any other reason.
NANCY (blurting out) Race!
TEACHER Uh... good Nancy. Can't overlook that. (V.O.) Boy sitting at Willow's right,
FREDDY (V.O.) Look at them, scrambling for the teacher's praise like pigeons for thrown bread crust Buffy turns.
BUFFY (whispering) Will, who's that guy.
WILLOW That's Freddy Iverson. He writes those editorials for the school paper. He's sardonic.
FREDDY (V.O.) Bread crusts. That's deep. I should write that down. Buffy turns and looks back at the teacher, now at the front of the room.
TEACHER There's something else at work here.
BUFFY Well, he, um, he sort of admits himself that his motives are... spurious! He, um, he does things because he, he enjoys them. It's like he's not, he's not really a person. He's a, the dark half of Othello himself.
WILLOW (V.O.) Huh...
XANDER (V.O.) Woah! The teacher steps out from behind her desk and approaches Buffy.
TEACHER Buffy. Really. Very astute. I said something quite like that in my dissertation.
BUFFY I know. Uh, I mean... I agree. With that.
TEACHER Yes, and doesn't that also explain Othello's readiness to believe Iago. Within seconds he turns on Desdomona. Camera moves in on Buffy as the teacher speaks.
TEACHER He believes that she's been unfaithful. And we're all like that. We all have our little internal Iagos, that tell us our husbands or our girlfriends or whatever, don't really love us. But you never really see what's in someone's heart.
The classroom scene fades to Angel walking toward his draped over doorway. Buffy opens the drapes. Angel brings up his arm, shielding himself from the daylight.


From Telemachus:
-- What is your idea of Hamlet? Haines asked Stephen.

-- No, no, Buck Mulligan shouted in pain. I'm not equal to Thomas Aquinas and the fiftyfive reasons he has made to prop it up. Wait till I have a few pints in me first.

He turned to Stephen, saying as he pulled down neatly the peaks of his primrose waistcoat:

-- You couldn't manage it under three pints, Kinch, could you?

-- It has waited so long, Stephen said listlessly, it can wait longer.

-- You pique my curiosity, Haines said amiably. Is it some paradox?

-- Pooh! Buck Mulligan said. We have grown out of Wilde and paradoxes. It's quite simple. He proves by algebra that Hamlet's grandson is Shakespeare's grandfather and that he himself is the ghost of his own father.

-- What? Haines said, beginning to point at Stephen. He himself?

Buck Mulligan slung his towel stolewise round his neck and, bending in loose laughter, said to Stephen's ear:

-- O, shade of Kinch the elder! Japhet in search of a father!

-- We're always tired in the morning, Stephen said to Haines. And it is rather long to tell.

Buck Mulligan, walking forward again, raised his hands.

-- The sacred pint alone can unbind the tongue of Dedalus, he said.


From Scylla & Charybdis:
Mr Best turned an unoffending face to Stephen.

-- Mallarmé, don't you know, he said, has written those wonderful prose poems Stephen MacKenna used to read to me in Paris. The one about Hamlet. He says: il se promène, lisant au livre de lui-même, don't you know, reading the book of himself. He describes Hamlet given in a French town, don't you know, a provincial town. They advertised it.

His free hand graciously wrote tiny signs in air.

Pièce de Shakespeare

He repeated to John Eglinton's newgathered frown:

-- Piéce de Shakespeare, don't you know. It's so French, the French point of view. Hamlet ou...

-- The absentminded beggar, Stephen ended.

John Eglinton laughed.

-- Yes, I suppose it would be, he said. Excellent people, no doubt, but distressingly shortsighted in some matters.

Sumptuous and stagnant exaggeration of murder.

-- A deathsman of the soul Robert Greene called him, Stephen said. Not for nothing was he a butcher's son wielding the sledded poleaxe and spitting in his palm. Nine lives are taken off for his father's one, Our Father who art in purgatory. Khaki Hamlets don't hesitate to shoot. The bloodboltered shambles in act five is a forecast of the concentration camp sung by Mr Swinburne.

Cranly, I his mute orderly, following battles from afar.

Whelps and dams of murderous foes whom none
But we had spared...

Between the Saxon smile and yankee yawp. The devil and the deep sea.

-- He will have it that Hamlet is a ghoststory, John Eglinton said for Mr Best's behoof. Like the fat boy in Pickwick he wants to make our flesh creep.

List! List! O List!

My flesh hears him: creeping, hears.

If thou didst ever...

-- What is a ghost? Stephen said with tingling energy. One who has faded into impalpability through death, through absence, through change of manners. Elizabethan London lay as far from Stratford as corrupt Paris lies from virgin Dublin. Who is the ghost from limbo patrum, returning to the world that has forgotten him? Who is king Hamlet?

John Eglinton shifted his spare body, leaning back to judge:


-- It is this hour of a day in mid June, Stephen said, begging with a swift glance their hearing. The flag is up on the playhouse by the bankside. The bear Sackerson growls in the pit near it, Paris garden. Canvasclimbers who sailed with Drake chew their sausages among the groundlings.

Local colour. Work in all you know. Make them accomplices.

-- Shakespeare has left the huguenot's house in Silver street and walks by the swanmews along the riverbank. But he does not stay to feed the pen chivying her game of cygnets towards the rushes. The swan of Avon has other thoughts.

Composition of place. Ignatius Loyola, make haste to help me!

-- The play begins. A player comes on under the shadow, made up in the castoff mail of a court buck, a wellset man with a bass voice. It is the ghost, the king, a king and no king, and the player is Shakespeare who has studied Hamlet all the years of his life which were not vanity in order to play the part of the spectre. He speaks the words to Burbage, the young player who stands before him beyond the rack of cerecloth, calling him by a name:

Hamlet, I am thy father's spirit

bidding him list. To a son he speaks, the son of his soul, the prince, young Hamlet and to the son of his body, Hamnet Shakespeare, who has died in Stratford that his namesake may live for ever.

-- Is it possible that that player Shakespeare, a ghost by absence, and in the vesture of buried Denmark, a ghost by death, speaking his own words to his own son's name (had Hamnet Shakespeare lived he would have been prince Hamlet's twin) is it possible, I want to know, or probable that he did not draw or foresee the logical conclusion of those premises: you are the dispossessed son: I am the murdered father: your mother is the guilty queen. Ann Shakespeare, born Hathaway?

-- But this prying into the family life of a great man, Russell began impatiently.

Art thou there, truepenny?

-- Interesting only to the parish clerk. I mean, we have the plays. I mean when we read the poetry of King Lear what is it to us how the poet lived? As for living, our servants can do that for us, Villiers de l'Isle has said. Peeping and prying into greenroom gossip of the day, the poet's drinking, the poet's debts. We have King Lear: and it is immortal.

Mr Best's face appealed to, agreed.

Flow over them with your waves and with your waters,
Mananaan, Mananaan MacLir...
{My source:


Some additional thoughts:

1. — The Complete Buffy Episode Guide is a good Buffy source as is

2. A guy named Lou Shochet has a good discussion of the ghost theme in Joyce at Scylla & Charybdis.

3. The scene in the National Library has Stephen think about agenbit of inwit (not for the first time). It's a piece of Joycean esoterica that's hard to forget once you've come upon it.

4. I called this post metempsychosis in a weak attempt to be cutely Joycean. Here's the scene where it occurs in Ulysses, from the fourth section, Calypso, Bloom and Molly in the bedroom early in the morning of that great midmonth day of June 1904:
The book, fallen, sprawled against the bulge of the orange-keyed chamberpot.

-- Show here, she said. I put a mark in it. There's a word I wanted to ask you.

She swallowed a draught of tea from her cup held by nothandle and, having wiped her fingertips smartly on the blanket, began to search the text with the hairpin till she reached the word.

-- Met him what? he asked.

-- Here, she said. What does that mean?

He leaned downwards and read near her polished thumbnail.

-- Metempsychosis?

-- Yes. Who's he when he's at home?

-- Metempsychosis, he said, frowning. It's Greek: from the Greek. That means the transmigration of souls.

-- O, rocks! she said. Tell us in plain words.

He smiled, glancing askance at her mocking eye. The same young eyes. The first night after the charades. Dolphin's Barn. He turned over the smudged pages. Ruby: the Pride of the Ring. Hello. Illustration. Fierce Italian with carriagewhip. Must be Ruby pride of the on the floor naked. Sheet kindly lent. The monster Maffei desisted and flung his victim from him with an oath. Cruelty behind it all. Doped animals. Trapeze at Hengler's. Had to look the other way. Mob gaping. Break your neck and we'll break our sides. Families of them. Bone them young so they metempsychosis. That we live after death. Our souls. That a man's soul after he dies. Dignam's soul...

-- Did you finish it? he asked.

-- Yes, she said. There's nothing smutty in it. Is she in love with the first fellow all the time?

-- Never read it. Do you want another?

-- Yes. Get another of Paul de Kock's. Nice name he has.

She poured more tea into her cup, watching its flow sideways.

Must get that Capel street library book renewed or they'll write to Kearney, my guarantor. Reincarnation: that's the word.

-- Some people believe, he said, that we go on living in another body after death, that we lived before. They call it reincarnation. That we all lived before on the earth thousands of years ago or some other planet. They say we have forgotten it. Some say they remember their past lives.

The sluggish cream wound curdling spirals through her tea. Better remind her of the word: metempsychosis. An example would be better. An example.

The Bath of the Nymph over the bed. Given away with the Easter number of Photo Bits: Splendid masterpiece in art colours. Tea before you put milk in. Not unlike her with her hair down: slimmer. Three and six I gave for the frame. She said it would look nice over the bed. Naked nymphs: Greece: and for instance all the people that lived then.

He turned the pages back.

-- Metempsychosis, he said, is what the ancient Greeks called it. They used to believe you could be changed into an animal or a tree, for instance. What they called nymphs, for example.

Her spoon ceased to stir up the sugar. She gazed straight before her, inhaling through her arched nostrils.

-- There's a smell of burn, she said. Did you leave anything on the fire?

-- The kidney! he cried suddenly.
{My source:

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