Stuck in a left brain box

Look, there are things you know because you have them down in black and white.  And there are things you know because they are reasonable and have to be so.
…………..      ………………….Raymond Chandler, The High Window

It never seems to strike the academics how peculiar it is that we know so much (that makes sense) about Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe and so little (that makes sense) about their far more important contemporary.  Why is that?  I don’t mean, why is it that we know so little about Shakespeare?––I mean, why is it that this never strikes them?

I think the problem has to do partly with quantity and partly with quality.  A little seems to satisfy them, and that little seems to be all of a particular sort.  A few mentions on title pages and in a legal document or two, are apparently enough for them.  Of course, as we’ve noted time and again, the holders of the keys to the Shakespeare kingdom, the English professors, don’t really care about the author.  Their interest is in the text, not its creator, so we shouldn’t be surprised at this attitude, though after years of studying what makes great literature it would seem that they might have acquired some sense of what makes a believable story.

It doesn’t bother them that what we know about Shakespeare doesn’t begin to compare with how we can track Marlowe all the way from the Canterbury School to Cambridge to the Rose Theater to Deptford, particularly since Marlowe’s time on the world stage was so much shorter than Shakespeare’s.  Nor does it strike them that nothing in Shakespeare shows any connection to the interests or attitudes of a man (however supposedly intelligent) raised by a struggling leather-worker in a provincial market town, while Marlowe’s attitudes perfectly fit what we might expect from the son of a poor urban shoemaker.  One thinks of  Nicola Sacco, “the poor shoemaker” of Sacco and Vanzetti, who, much like Marlowe, was accused of anarchy by a government out to scare dissidents, unjustly tried and executed.

Perhaps it’s because academics, raised from childhood on multiple choice questions and term papers that rarely do more than give a teacher’s pet ideas back to her, become so immersed in a left brain approach to everything that by the time they write their dissertations and their introductions to new editions of Shakespeare, their right brains have simply gone to sleep.  This is truly ironic, for never was there a more right-brain individual than the poet who called himself Shakespeare.

Right brain vs left

In small children, primitive humans and animals the left brain is subservient to the right in much the same way that in humans, one hand is subservient to the other, or that the fork is subservient to the knife.  Like the right brain, the knife came first, it’s useful for many more things than the fork, and it can be used in place of a fork should that be missing.  The fork on the other hand is useless in a fight, can’t skin a goat, can’t kill a running deer at 50 paces, can’t cut through a rope or a blister pac, and so forth.  The fork is really of very little use without the knife, and the same thing is true of the left brain vis a vis the right.

Nature developed the left brain as the servant of its partner hemisphere, allowing the dominant right brain to maintain a deep, broad, 360 degree surveillance of the surrounding world while leftie focuses at a micro level on details that the right brain can then place in context with its world view.  It’s interesting that in animals they’ve discovered that the right brain is involved with checking the environment for predators while the left is focussed on finding food.  In humans it’s the difference between the CEO of a company and its CFO, between the president of a company and its production manager, between entrepreneurs and bean-counters, between quarterbacks and scorekeepers.

The left-brain sees things on the micro level, single frames of a film, a single cell on a slide under a microscope.  It sees events as beads on a string, one at a time.  The x-y chart shows two sets of data in relation to each other, but add a third and the mind automatically switces to thr right hemisphere, or it chooses one of the two original data sets to compare with the third.  Why?  Because the left brain can’t go any higher than the 2nd dimension, than a binary code, zero-one, on-off, dot-dash.  Although it’s aware that there is such a thing as simultaneity or immensity of volume, scale, or scope, it’s impossible for the left brain to experience these as anything more than words.

Humans today must communicate primarily through language, through words (or numbers), single bits of data that when strung together like beads on a string, can be passed from one mind to another, at which point they are meant to open like a paper pop-up into dimensional images and ideas.  Before humans learned to write, words were enhanced by physical expression, pitch, emphasis, and body language, something that’s lost to readers.  With written language, words were forced to bear the entire burden of communicating thought, which meant that that language had to become richer, more complex, more capable of nuance.

It took many centuries before the written word gradually overtook the spoken word in importance; in English we would probably place this towards the end of the nineteenth century with the surge of interest in education and the discovery of cheaper methods of publishing books.  Until then, the written word was mostly used as a backup, or reference, to what the non-literate community knew from hearing it spoken aloud, mostly in church, or read at home by the one literate family member.

Today the spoken word relies almost entirely on the written record.  The result is that in many areas, among them the university departments where the written word is all that’s left from the past, there simply is no way to communicate via the right brain, that is, there is no way unless it can be verified by left brain methods.  Thus all that relates to right brain thinking, common sense, comparison with more than one set of data at a time, awareness of volume, intensity, color, is simply impossible.

Nor is this something new to our times for it’s what the Reformation scholars of Sir Thomas Smith’s time decried in what they called the “barbaric” schoolmen who relied so totally on Aristotle and Duns Scotus, the kind Shakespeare satirized as Holofernes in Love’s Labour’s Lost.  It’s exactly what Swift was satirizing back in the 18th century both in his depiction of Gulliver as a giant compared to the Lilliputians, for it is the right brain that can reason based on size and volume as the left brain cannot (except by comparing numbers), and in his depiction of the foolish scholars in the “spaced out” island of Laputa.

For most intelligent humans whose left brain plays the natural role of servant to the right brain, there’s no problem.  But in academic circles, where work takes place within the confines of the left brain and has ever since the age of five or six, pathways to the right brain are few, for the left brain rules communication, and in order to deal with things more easily (on a micro level), it must separate them into categories, put them in some kind of order (alphabetical, numerical, chronological) so that one point at a time can be considered in isolation, barricaded against the chaos of right brain inclusiveness.  While the right brain delights in quantities, a single dot of white in a vast field of green, the lone wail of an oboe against the mounting thunder of the strings and percussion, the left brain is concerned with where the painter got his style, or following the oboe part on the score.

Of course we need the left brain or we’d never get to work on time or get our taxes paid or measure the ingredients for a chocolate soufflé or learn to play the oboe.  Where we go wrong is in trusting right brain matters to it, or for that matter, trusting left brain matters to the right brain, which, Heaven knows, can be an even worse disaster, as we see in those poor souls who’ve suffered a left brain stroke.

Perhaps it’s inevitable that in a highly literate society, predominantly left brain persons will end up in a system that caters to their predelictions.  It’s only due to the revolutionary upheavals by disaffected right brainers that such a system is forced to cross the boundaries between disciplines, seek the big picture, and ignore Laputian “experts” in favor of ordinary common sense.  The spasm of insanity known as Deconstruction that befell western English departments of the during the 1950s and 60s, during which an entire generation of hapless late adolescents were forced to learn and communicate in an otherwise useless jargon, is an example of what can happen when left-brainers succeed in taking over an otherwise rational system.  This can only happen in a university, where the product is credentials, words on paper, not something tangible like paint or potatoes or public transit or poetry, the kind that makes you shiver.

Shakespeare knew this.  Seeking in Plutarch and Halle for the historical figures he was bent on bringing to life and finding only facts, he breathed them into life by adding story––passion, pain, and motivation––much of it his own.

When it comes to humans, there are two kinds of truth, fact and story, left and right brain.  Both are needed and they need to fit together and reinforce each other.  One alone won’t do; and certainly not the left-brain.

4 responses to “Stuck in a left brain box

  1. What a wonderful article,I really enjoyed it.
    This in particular – Perhaps it’s because academics, raised from childhood on multiple choice questions and term papers that rarely do more than give a teacher’s pet ideas back to her, become so immersed in a left brain approach to everything that by the time they write their dissertations and their introductions to new editions of Shakespeare, their right brains have simply gone to sleep. This is truly ironic, for never was there a more right-brain individual than the poet who called himself Shakespeare.

  2. Before I take the time to comment, do you still maintain this website, Stephanie?

    • Yes. Sorry for being so long about blogging. I’ve been in the final countdown to finishing my book, “Educating Shakespeare.” Will return as soon as I recover.

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