The title line for this post is misleading because it is incomplete. Spoken by Cardinal Pandolf in King John, the opening phrase suggests a dissolution, a complete disintegration of form, order, and (as Pandolf deliberately implies) meaning. The whole line underscores something else:
All form is formless, order orderless,King John 3.1.178
Save what is opposite to England’s love.
Therefore to arms! be champion of our church,
Or let the church, our mother, breathe her curse,
A mother’s curse, on her revolting son.
France, thou mayst hold a serpent by the tongue,
A chafed lion by the mortal paw,
A fasting tiger safer by the tooth,
Than keep in peace that hand which thou dost hold.
Legate from the Pope, Pandolf represents the Pope’s spiritual authority, and at this moment in the play, he opens his speech with a vertiginous moment. Formless form. Orderless order. The words preceding the word “save” push us. Ideas that all form might actually be formless unbalance us on the lip of a precipice. Substance drops away and we are in danger of tumbling into the abyss of chaos and dissolution.
Pandolf voices a plasticity often associated with madness or psychedelic states. Forms melt and dissolve, potentially threatening to merge into each other. The language suggests the possibility of different emergent shapes or forms, derived from previously unconsidered associations. Shakespeare frequently uses such metaphorical mechanisms. When we have our footing, we know a hawk from a handsaw, we know that owls are not bakers’ daughters.
Still, Shakespeare’s language so frequently leads us elsewhere. Beckoned out of familiar parallel, we might be compared to a summer’s day. Or we may be led into the melting language of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where the final act is bookended with the idea of dreams. The fifth act opens with the Duke’s doubts:
HIPPOLYTAA Midsummer Night’s Dream 5.1.1-18
’Tis strange, my Theseus, that these lovers speak of.
More strange than true. I never may believe
These antique fables nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact.
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold:
That is the madman. The lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt.
The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to Earth, from Earth to
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
And the act closes with Puck’s monologue where fairy melts into character melts into player:
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this and all is mended:
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend.
If you pardon, we will mend.
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearnèd luck
Now to ’scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long.
Else the Puck a liar call.
So good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.
Visions become dreams become goodnight become applause.
Shifting reality. Psychedelic indeed.
Yet, an experience with which we all are at least somewhat familiar. As a more modern writer described it:
We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive….” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?”
Then if was quiet again. My attorney had taken his shirt off and was pouring beer on his chest to facilitate the tanning process. “What the hell are you yelling about?” he muttered, staring up at the sun with his eyes closed and covered with wraparound Spanish sunglasses.*
The fantastic shift from one reality to another. From day to night. Sky to bats to beer facilitated tans. Bear in mind that these are drug imbibing professionals. Please don’t try this at home.
Not that we need the drugs. We can simply set off, proclaiming a new reality, a new way of expression:
CITIZENS children of the night, bearers of the day torch: scorched and burned. BURN NOT. the dam is broken. the curse is fled. once muddied and still, the river runs RED! "ALL those ships that never sailed the ones with their seacocks open that were scuttled in their stalls TODAY i bring them back HUGE AND INTRANSITORY and let them sail FOREVER!"**
Same landscapes may differ depending on the perspective. As Tom Lehrer reminds us, a little hug becomes huge instantly if you just add silent “e”:
Cans become canes. Cubs become cubes. All very cozy. Transformation. Butterflies, yes. But transformation may also be terrifying. Hunter S. Thompson’s bats, and also wolves, as we can see from David Naughton’s portrayal of David Kessler’s first werewolf transformation:
That the wholesome might be quickly subsumed by the unholy or diseased is not new. Shakespeare’s general Coriolanus, who hates the plebeians, asks them “What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues,/ That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion,/ Make yourselves scabs?” He sees the common people themselves almost as a disease, a kind of underlying lycanthropy of opinion which at the slightest agitation erupts into the scabrous.
Not only landscapes may vary from day:
But we may also forget ourselves, or even transform momentarily. Gary Snyder notes a moment when when the America of his own past seemed almost like a love to him again:
I WENT INTO THE MAVERICK BAR I went into the Maverick Bar In Farmington, New Mexico. And drank double shots of bourbon backed with beer. My long hair was tucked up under a cap I'd left the earring in the car. Two cowboys did horseplay by the pol tables, A waitress asked us where you from? a country-and-western band began to play "We don't smoke Marijuana in Muskokie" And with the next song a couple began to dance. They held each other like in High School dances in the fifties; I recalled when I worked in the woods and the bars of Madras, Oregon. That short-haired joy and roughness-- America--your stupidity. I could almost love you again. We left--onto the freeway shoulders-- under the tough old stars-- In the shadow of bluffs I came back to myself, To the real work, to "What is to be done."***
For truth may be scraped up wherever we are standing. Wherever we are sitting. Drinking. Falling. We all become werewolves, bats, falling down the rabbit hole whole. We scratch ourselves, less good at Kerouacian “rolling under the stars”, and better and better at sex and violins.
SNL got it right, of course, and I could show more except corporate limitations on availability restrict such freedoms. The television show is owned. The material is owned. Performances are owned. As America has become better at violence, we have also become better (as has the world) at owning things. At transforming things, ideas, impulses, and human activity into territory. Fencing things off. Old ideas of “Don’t fence me in” be damned. The transformation has become one of fencing for dollars.
We sacrifice ourselves on the altars of Mammon, transforming corporations and our own acquisition into gods. These gods provide not just our fulfillment, but also our expression. We are what we drive, watch, eat. We are the mighty thought trains upon which we hitch a ride. Not what we build. Not what we paint. Not what we write. What we create.
We found our big rock candy mountain, but it now rots our teeth and our minds to paraphrase Kevin McCallister.
Watch the American shows on Netflix. Then watch the offerings from any other country. French. Korean. See a difference? Is America leading the pack? In what? Perhaps it’s just me.
In one sense, Cardinal Pandolf was right. When we fall away from the path of the true and righteous, we lose not only ourselves, but also the universe. We cannot gather rosebuds because our hands melt away from us. Our agency is lost to mindless dithering–to mere rhetorical allegiances. Dali’s memory clocks melt even as we rush to meet our impossible schedules, with our feet sticking to the streets as we try to run.
We sacrifice art and thought. We become John Wilkes Booth instead of Edwin, and our actor becomes an assassin. The fascist lords it over those who would oppose the fascist aims, inventing terms with which to brand them traitorous. “Antifa”, we hear in the streets, a term which seems to make the idea of standing against fascism a bad thing when the only thing that is truly bad is violins. Violin actions. Violin thoughts. Violin attitudes.
We pick our skins away becoming hollow reeds and empty vessels. Is someone stealing something from us? That’s what we’re told. And we argue about it, even coming to blows.
Nonetheless, storming the capitol is hardly an answer. If we stab Caesar, he may lie Pompey’s feet, but a new Caesar will come slouching out of the woods. The new monster will come out of the dark when we call for our pet dog to come in for the night. Something shambling from our past into our future. Sins of the fathers and mothers will be transported to the newly planted Rome.
The only salvation lies in creation, in easing the pain by affirming existence. The truth of human experience lies in the “am” of “I am”, in calling into being and letting be.
At the end of Turtle Island, Gary Snyder reminds us of how a poet is. He speaks of poets of earth, air, fire, water, and finally space and mind.
The Space Poet Sleeps. No end to the sky-- But his poems, Like wild geese, Fly off the edge. A Mind Poet Stays in the house. The house is empty And it has no walls. The poem Is seen from all sides, Everywhere, At once.****
Hard to argue. Real change lies not in ownership, not in acquisition, but in perspective. These things make us comfortable, but it is understanding which makes life worth living. Drawing and living the dawn of our own directions makes us whole, and gives us back our lives. Whether we make films, write prose, paint, or play cricket or baseball, only the core of our own art makes us whole. When we follow that, the walls all disappear.
Then we dream the dream and become a summer’s day.
*Thompson, Hunter S. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: a Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. New York: Vintage, 1998, p.1.
**Williams, Saul Stacey. ,Said the Shotgun to the Head. New York etc.: Pockets Books, 2003, pp.2-3.
***Snyder, Gary. “I Went into the Maverick Bar.” Poem. In Turtle Island. New York: New Directions, 2008, p.9.
****”As for Poets.” Poem. Ibid, p.86.