When Black Saturday came, I was living in a small town in the middle of the forest with only one way out. I was scared stiff, and I went to the pub very relieved when the wind changed that evening. We were horrified when we woke next day to find so many dead. It could so easily have been us. We felt the guilt of the survivors. We needed to reach out to other people to share our burden. On the Monday, I was trying to explain this to a modish silk in a mediation I was chairing. After a while, I realised I was going nowhere. I may as well have been addressing the wall. Nothing interested this silk unless it affected her personally. You see just this with Donald Trump. If the conversation does not concern him personally, he drops his head and his hands like a disconsolate ourangatang.
What was I trying to do? Well, in some ways I was just trying to say what it is to be human. You can’t really put it in words. There are those beautiful lines of Virgil:
Sunt lachrymae rerum
Et mentem mortalia tangunt.
Nor is it easy to translate those lines. They mean something like: ‘Even things have tears, and we are touched by [intimations of] our own mortality.’ It is very sad if you seek to share your humanity and the other person cannot find within their self the humanity to respond.
If I told you I was going to introduce you to someone who was cold, you would not be happy with that news. Your day was not about to improve. Nor would it be much better if the epithet were ‘precise’. Such a person might share some humanity – but it may be measured or sterilised, or both. ‘Sterile’ is never a happy epithet for one of us, but the three sorts of personality we are looking at are people who have problems relating to the rest of us. They get called cold fish.
Two cold fish of Shakespeare are Angelo in Measure for Measure and Cassius in Julius Caesar. Here is the kernel of the famous portrait of Cassius the smiling assassin.
He thinks too much; such men are dangerous….
………………He reads much;
He is a great observer and he looks
Quite through the deeds of men: he loves no plays,
As thou dost, Antony; he hears no music;
Seldom he smiles, and smiles in such a sort
As if he mock’d himself and scorn’d his spirit
That could be moved to smile at any thing.
Such men as he be never at heart’s ease
Whiles they behold a greater than themselves,
And therefore are they very dangerous. (1.2. 195-209)
Here is a man who only has time for himself. There is something missing from his makeup. Manning Clark would have said that the hand of the potter had faltered. In Merchant of Venice,5.1.83 ff, we get: ‘The man that hath no music in himself,/ Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,/ Is fit for treasons…..Let no such man be trusted.’ You would not warm to a bloke who was said to have no music of any kind in his make-up. He might be a walking metronome. And we know that Cassius sees little goodness in others. ‘For who so firm that cannot be seduced?’ (1.2.312)
From Shakespeare’s source (Plutarch) we learn that Cassius has a personal grudge – Caesar became a consul before him – and that Caesar did not fear fat luxurious men, but asked: ‘What do you think Cassius is aiming at? I don’t like him, he looks so pale.’
Lord Angelo is the ice man.
Lord Angelo is precise;
Stands at a guard with envy; scarce confesses
That his blood flows, or that his appetite
Is more to bread than stone: hence shall we see,
If power change purpose, what our seemers be. (1.4.50-54)
Later we get the earthier version from Lucio (who is a kind of comic Greek chorus): ‘But it is certain that when he makes water his urine is congealed ice; that I know to be true. And he is a motion generative; that’s infallible.’ (3.2.112 – 114) (‘Motion generative’ is ‘masculine’ puppet’.)
Cassius had ambition and a grudge. His coldness came from realising that if you want to be serious in politics, you have to put up with blood on your hands – and you must brace yourself accordingly. The inability of Brutus to do just that brought them all undone; when Lady Macbeth sterilised herself to perfection, she went mad. The coldness of Angelo was a front to hold down or at least hide the volcano raging under his belt – something that would certainly destroy him if it ever broke out. But both Cassius and Angelo are what we call control freaks. They like playing the part of puppet-master. And there is an awful lot about mortality in Measure for Measure – and, for that matter, Julius Caesar. In the former we are told of one character who is ‘insensible of mortality and desperately mortal’ (4.2.148). In both plays failures of humanity cross paths with visitations of mortality. And if Angelo is the puritan and Cassius is the manipulator, they can each chill your blood when they turn really cold.
One thought on “Here and there – Some cold fish – and an angry ape”
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