O, what a fall was there, my countrymen! / Then I, and you, and all of us fell down.
In Graham Greene’s 1958 novel Our Man in Havana a British citizen named Mr. Wormold is invited to the hotel room of a man named Hawthorne (a member of the British Secret Service). Wormold runs a not very prosperous vacuum cleaner shop in Havana – and so he becomes interested in a proposition made to him by Hawthorne to become the Secret Service spy in Havana – working under the cover of his shop. Wormold is reluctant, he’s not into politics – but he could use the generous salary offered by Hawthorne. To prepare for his clandestine work he is first given a copy of Charles Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare – designed for children – which retells the plot of Shakespeare’s plays in plain English, thus freeing the child from the archaic and demanding language (and thought) of Shakespeare himself.
When Wormold asks Hawthorne why he needs this book, Hawthorne says it’s to be used as a codebook. All Wormold has to do when he sends “secret” information to London is to choose a page and a line randomly from which to encode a message – and simply let Wormold know the page and line number. Other intricacies to confuse potential counterspies include the elimination of personal names. In so far as Hawthorne is known within the spy network as 59200, henceforth Wormold will be known as 59200/5 and Wormold’s future agents will be known as 59200/5/1, 59200/5//2 and so on. In other words Wormold by joining the Secret Service (for a better income) crosses over from the language of business, of vacuum cleaner sales into the obscure discourse of espionage which remains impersonal, digital, designed to communicate only to a few cryptologists in England.
One could say that in modern times we have all made a similar cross over from common sense discourse to a language universe characterized by tweets, microblogging, no more than 140 characters to a screen, 40% of which discourse has been classified as pointless babble. Are these signs of a declining culture? Language has been the repository of our most treasured, motivating human ideas, poetry, wisdom – yet of late so much of public and private discourse has none of the discipline of – for instance - the real language of Shakespeare, which by the way seems easily understood by even the uneducated listener.
I mean let’s look at Shakespeare’s play “Julius Caesar” out of all his masterpieces. Listen simply to some classic phrases like Caesar’s remark: Let me have men about me that are fat / . . . Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look. / He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous. Or consider Portia’s complaint to her distracted husband Brutus: Dwell I but in the suburbs of your good pleasure? Then there is Caesar’s response to concerns about his safety: Cowards die many times before their deaths; / The valiant never taste of death but once. Then there is Brutus’ reaction to the anger of Cassius: There is no terror, Cassius, in your threats; / For I am arm’d so strong in honesty / That they pass me by as the idle wind. And here is Brutus again: There is a tide in the affairs of men / Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; / Omitted, all the voyage of their life / Is bound in shallows and in miseries. / On such a full sea are we now afloat, / And we must take the current when it serves / Or lose our ventures.
Taking Brutus’ words out of their context in the play, should they not be spoken to every young man and woman starting out in life – to catch the tide of discourse our biblical writers and our Shakespeares caught and thus avoid the shallows and consequent misery of our contemporary world?