“Words, words, words”: Hamlet, Mishima, and Thoreau Take on Patriotism in the octagon

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Michael Stoneham | © Michael Stoneham 2016

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Patriotism is balderdash. Our side, our state, our town, is boyish enough. But it is true that every foot of soil as it proper quality, that a grape on either side of the fence has still its own flavor, and so every acre on the globe, every group of people, every point of climate, has its own moral meaning whereof it is the symbol. For such a patriotism let us stand.” (RWE, Journal, August 24, 1847)

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 We, the People, recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which only asks what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense. (Barack Obama)

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 The curious moral quality we call patriotism, which seems to flourish best, like flowers, in the lowest ground. (RWE, letter to Mrs. Emerson Feb 1827)

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 I think there are few things more patriotic than taking the time to make your country a better place. (Michael Moore)

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Let’s face it; patriotism is a strange concept. On one hand, it is a virtue that is privileged and valued by responsible citizens of a world defined by national identities; on another, it is a valueless word overused by empowered figures to manipulate a population that thoughtlessly responds to ultimate fighting rhetoric and willingly throws themselves at causes, campaigns, and commercial ventures that have as little value as the word itself. In his 1961 short story enigmatically titled by that strangely employed noun, Yukio Mishima teased readers with traditional notions of patriotism. His narrative traces the apparent patriotic, idealistic, youthful, devoted, and “heroic” army officer, Lieutenant Shinji Takeyama of the Konoe Transport Battalion in his preparation to defend the honor of the Army and subdue his former Army comrades who have decided to violently overthrow the effeminate post-war government—an act which foreshadowed Mishima’s own attempt at a coup d’ etat. Mishima’s protagonist fails, just as Mishima failed, and commits seppuku (ritual suicide) because he cannot honorably fulfill his duty and attack his “closest colleagues.”

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Over the course of the narrative, the discerning reader comes to understand, however, that it is not the young officer, Takeyama, who is patriotic and noble; it is, instead, Reiko, Takeyama’s beautiful, submissive new bride, who demonstrates all of the real qualities of Patriotism, since she is unfailingly loyal, undeniably devoted, unquestionably faithful, and unflinchingly honorable in her willingness to sacrifice herself in response to her husband’s decision, an act which she committed alone after she had obediently and silently “witnessed” her husbands’ violent death. Unlike Reiko, the lieutenant is neither unfailingly loyal to the Imperial Army, to which he has pledged his loyalty, nor is he singularly devoted to his unit or his country; his devotion to his mutinous friends challenges his devotion to country. He is, instead, an impostor, who selfishly rejects his responsibilities to his unit—since he refuses, in his suicide, to join them and fight the mutinous faction that rejected their oath of loyalty, and he refuses to privilege their apparent higher devotion to principle, since he does not choose to join them in their rejection of post-war limitations to their martial desires, hence refuses to privilege the Japanese nation as an independent, empowered, self-determined nation. His choice of suicide, though in one sense, consistent with the Bushido—the ancient Japanese code of the warrior made accessible to the West in Nitobe Inazo’s 1889 book Bushido: the Soul of Japan, which stipulated the eight virtues essential to the honorable warrior—most prominent among them begin Loyalty. These virtues might be useful when thinking about patriotism, since each of them—justice, courage, benevolence (or mercy), politeness, honesty and sincerity, honor, loyalty, character (and self control) might be considered essential to the patriot. However, perhaps, patriotism is most commonly and appropriately found in the realm of honor, loyalty, and character.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Loyalty to national effort, to a nationally sanctioned organization, or to codified national principle seem to be principally the way in which we see the term patriotism employed contemporarily; the patriot today, then is the person who embodies part or all of the nation’s character—as seen in the principles that that person privileges and acts upon, in the organizations to which he or she commits herself and represents, and in the national efforts that the individual overtly—or covertly—supports.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 When one thinks about Shinji Takeyama and his young wife Reiko, one can conclude that neither character is then really patriotic in the contemporary use of the term. Both seem to privilege the principles of post-war Japan articulated in the Constitution of 1947, since both embrace peace “for all time,” but both permit and enable each other to act violently and in accordance with an archaic and destructive code believed to be one of the causes of their national suffering at the end of the second world war; both refuse to follow through with the obligations to which they owe an organization to which they have pledged themselves—though in very different ways: Shinji rejects the obligation to his Army unit; Reiko troublingly and singularly embraces only her obligation to Shinji and rejects her tacit obligation to the unit of her husband and to her family: and neither embraces or acts on a sense of loyalty to a nation devoted to “peaceful cooperation with all nations and the blessings of liberty throughout” the land, as both reject acting on its behalf to restore peace in a violent swell of rebellion against the post-war anti-militaristic democracy initiated in the aftermath of the surrender of Japan.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 Additionally, neither mounts a flag on the back of his or her period Japanese Harley, registers his or her support for Soldiers, Sailors, or Marines recently returned from the latest strange echo of the British East India Company of Thoreau’s era–by enigmatically remarking “thank you for your service” to a befuddled, passing serviceman; or sports a “God Bless Japan” sticker on the back of his or her Nissan 4 X4. These are not representative of the particular qualities that a patriot demonstrates in our era.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Living in Concord near the site of the popular tourist destination, the North Bridge, Henry Thoreau was very aware of the looseness that his contemporaries embraced when they employed the word “patriot” or “patriotism” to describe the individuals and the actions of those who decided to violently oppose the armed British force marching from Boston to Concord to confiscate the weapons reputed to be cached there. Indeed, he was, in all probability, as appalled by the way in which the words patriot and patriotism were thrown about in reference to some of those he knew in Concord as a boy, and by those engaged in contemporary politics, or in the expansive capitalist enterprises catalyzed by the railroad, or in the local Concord militia that intruded on his contemplative experiment in independence at Walden and in his mother’s house in town, just as we are today.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Those patriotic words now, like then, mean very little; they are the tools of politicians, rabble rousers, and merchants who too easily employ them to sell ill-considered wars, questionable national ventures, social programs, and trinkets that do little besides occupy space and enrich their originators. Thoreau, of course, took issue with those who employed words without privileging the qualities and concepts that those words implied–in their best and most complete use. In the “Conclusion” of Walden, he lambasts the mercantile and political purveyers of poorly employed words when he notes: Every man is the lord of a realm beside which the earthly empire of the Czar is but a petty state, a hummock left by the ice. Yet some can be patriotic who have no self-respect, and sacrifice the greater to the less. They love the soil which makes their graves, but have no sympathy with the spirit which may still animate their clay. Patriotism is a maggot in their heads (301). That Thoreau was clearly appalled by the use to which his contemporaries put the word patriotism—and its lingual derivations– is no surprise. He certainly lambasted those who so easily and so often employed the term that ought to have had great resonance in American society but did not—in a way that cummings did in “next to of course god america I” in 1926—while considering the American war effort—to which he had, for a short time, devoted himself and the way in which American citizens responded to the fighting in France, Belgium, and of course Germany. Next to of course god America
next to of course god america i
love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth oh
say can you see by the dawn’s early my
country ’tis of centuries come and go
and are no more what of it we should worry
in every language even deafanddumb
thy sons acclaim your glorious name by gorry
by jingo by gee by gosh by gum
why talk of beauty what could be more beaut-
iful than these heroic happy dead
who rushed like lions to the roaring slaughter
they did not stop to think they died instead
then shall the voice of liberty be mute?
He spoke. And drank rapidly a glass of water

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Like Cummings, Thoreau, the unflinching social critic, confronted his errant contemporaries in the “Conclusion” of Walden with the all-too often superficial willingness go “all in” in the latest national effort without considering whether the effort was consistent with the principles of the nation, the composition of the organization that carried the efforts, and the tenor of the national effort which individuals supported. One need only think of a couple of events that coincided with the nine year effort to bring Walden to publication to understand Thoreau’s objection to the metaphorical and literal “love [of] the soil that makes their graves but …[lack of] sympathy with the spirit which may still animate their clay.” The land-grab initiated by expansionist President James Polk to annex Texas—in what resulted in the Mexican American War (1846-1848), and famously inspired Thoreau’s night in jail, is clearly just one of the events of Thoreau’s post-cabin life to which he refers in this passage. It is, however, equally appropriate when considering the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which incensed independent New Englanders and abolitionists, Thoreau and Emerson most significantly in Concord. Foremost among the “men of talent in the executive” (119) who abdicated his spirit to achieve compromise and preserve the union, Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster inspired Emerson’s considerable ire in his failure to “take the part of great principles, the side of humanity and justice” (78) when he insured that Senator Mason’s Fugitive Slave Bill became law in September, 1850.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Emerson’s reaction to Webster’s extension of slavery was both vitriolic and powerful. In his address “To the Citizens of Concord” in May, 1851, Emerson condemned the man whom he had once recognized as the “one eminent American of our time” (66). A man of considerable talent, understanding, and eloquence, Emerson suggests that Daniel Webster was uniquely qualified to guide a flawed nation from its unnatural tolerance of slavery to its natural position as the herald of liberty. However, “in opposition to his education, association, and to all his own most explicit language for thirty years, he crossed the line [, abdicated his natural position,] and became the head of the slavery party in this country” (66). Distinguishing Webster’s “powerful animal nature” as the force behind his political actions, Emerson calls attention to the orator’s unnatural disregard of morality in his decision to compromise the lives of four million enslaved human beings in order to maintain the status quo.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Emerson, like Thoreau, is thinking about the unnatural rejection of the principle or the spirit which animated the Declaration and the Constitution but did not live on in the compromise of 1850 or in the subsequent Kansas Nebraska Act, passed in May, 1854. Confronting those unwilling to privilege the spirit but to embrace the terrain of the expanding United States, Thoreau asked, “[w]ho can be serene in a country where both the rulers and the ruled are without principle? The remembrance of my country spoils my walk. My thoughts are murder to the State, and involuntarily go plotting against her” in his paradoxical July 4th, 1854 speech “Slavery in Massachusetts.”

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Distancing himself by implication from those who passively embraced the dictates of those they had empowered, Thoreau placed himself as speaker, citizen, and independently thinking man in an active role. His serenity impossible when his community was complicit in injustice, Thoreau challenged his fellow citizens to privilege higher laws and act upon them, not upon the dictates of the Monroe doctrine. Not only did he assert that doing so would restore the possibility of our own serenity, but he contended that it would allow his own.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 In this bold challenge to institutional stasis, Thoreau demanded that his auditors re-examine inherited notions of the individuals’ relationship with the government they empower. As he reminded his audience, “they are to be men first, and Americans only at a late and convenient hour” (189). Hence, just as he had in “On Civil Disobedience”—his earlier confrontation with a citizenry who abdicated many of their individual rights to a collective government that did not act from the collective empowering position of an engaged citizenry, in “Slavery in Massachusetts,” Thoreau exhorted his contemporaries to individually examine the beliefs that inspired serene, hence morally satisfied living, and then demand consistent behavior from the government they both empowered and were part of. Thoreau affirmed that engaging in government allows the “right of revolution.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 In essence then, when commenting on patriotism, Thoreau is suggesting that “every man”—that is– every single man who wants to retain some “self-respect”– must commit to a kind of personal bushido—that is a hierarchy of conduct that begins with loyalty to well-considered, inviolable principles–and willingness to act upon those principles— and progresses to engagement in organizations that allow the furtherance of those principles on a national scale—thern act in collective ways consistent with the aforementioned principles, and serve as national emblems of those principles in action on the international front. The principles that underlie each of these levels can never exist on the level of mere words; to do so is place oneself in the position that the less than wise fool Polonius occupies in “Hamlet”; he is the political purveyor of hollow “words, words, words,” in service of a corrupt Queen and a murderous King, and Hamlet understands that Polonius’s loyalties are convenient; no worthy principle underlies them. Hence, he has no “spirit which may still animate [his] clay”; he is a hollow man (in Elliott’s sense), all of his words are duplicitous and his grasp on the world loose. Hamlet knows him to be a “tedious old fool” playing the fool’s role, but at this point in the play, he does not realize the cost.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 Polonius, like Ophelia, will lose everything in his lack of principled action, as Shakespeare’s great play moves to its violent denouement; Thoreau saw the same loss in the aftermath of Webster’s unprincipled attempt to maintain the union in his fall from grace; he also saw the implicit loss of his Massachusetts contemporaries who answered the call and went off to fight a corrupt war in Mexico that was inconsistent with the principles articulated in the Declaration of Independence and in the 4th amendment of the Bill of Rights. And, of course, he saw it in the language of compromise that would find its way into the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and dominated congressional dialogue from its introduction in January of that year. It would, Thoreau knew, only survive if men failed to privilege their own beliefs and let the insatiable demands of the nation devour—maggot-like– their independent selves whose slumbering morality and intellects would bring the nation to ruin.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 Awake to your obligations, Thoreau, challenges his readers; they begin with your obligation to yourself and to the principles which you have adopted as your own, then act on them locally, and you will inform the nation as true patriot.

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Source: https://commons.digitalthoreau.org/tsag2016/thursday-july-7-2/words-words-words-hamlet-mishima-and-thoreau-take-on-patriotism-in-the-octagon/