TO BE or NOT TO BE
Things were pretty quiet 14 billion years ago.
This “quietus” was so peaceful for a literal eternity, that there was no way of even knowing that time was passing. And what is time but the possibility of it elapsing? So maybe there wasn’t even time.
Which sounds quite restful.
But also pretty tedious.
At some point there was a material Big Bang or a Bereshit moment when the before-time broke and the universe began. Nothingness split into nothing and something. Of course it’s hard to talk about those inhuman times in human terms, but by the time we get to humanity, it’s easier to talk about the exciting events that arise out of the divisions between genders, generations.
We think of brokenness as being a bad, wrong, unnatural state and, of course, it can be. I’m not saying that a broken leg is a good thing, but that’s not the only type of brokenness. When poet Rodger Kamenetz writes “Is there ever healing in a world always breaking?” he’s definitely wishing that things would not always break. But to answer his question only slightly disingenuously, there is *only* healing in a world where things break.
But, in the words of another poet, from Montreal rather than New Orleans, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” There’s no real avoiding brokenness or the mess of human life. You can try to avoid the messiness of society, like Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai and his son Elazar, who hid in a cave from the Romans
— and the rest of humanity. But that just encouraged even more inhuman intolerance and ends in tears when they emerge and shoot the fire of justice out of their eyes, slaughtering locals who are guilty of trivial sins.
There’s no avoiding the broken eggs of life if you want to make omelettes or babies. It only remains to be seen what we make of this unfolding creation. Do we enjoy the creeping, cracking, crackling motion of history as joy, tragedy or farce?
Shakespeare embraced the choice in his Tragedy of Hamlet. “To be, or not to be, that is the question,” points out Hamlet in Act III https://images.app.goo.gl/TU9cL22fsUcdHoPn9. It’s a choice, really, not a question and it’s one that the Prince of Denmark spends most of his five acts trying to fudge. If one opts “to be” — or to “choose life” as Deuteronomy https://www.sefaria.org/Deuteronomy.29.9-30.20?lang=he-en has it — you are also choosing “heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks / That flesh is heir to.” But, though death is a relief, bringing “quietus,” Hamlet reminds us that “the dread of something after death… puzzles the will.”
Hamlet faces a personal quandary of whether he should kill himself for the peace or face up to the awkward family dynamics and national politics of a Denmark whose king has died and been replaced by his brother. Because Hamlet, though, has an overactive imagination, the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” that he has to face are also philosophical challenges. Is the messiness of life really better than the perfect peace of death? And, as practical measure, Hamlet suspects that in killing himself death would just be contributing to the chaos of life.
In my work for LABAlive I, “The Broken Whisky Sonata”, I embrace the brokenness of life as creative farce. We are leaky organic bags, taking our pleasure where we can. It’s a staged excerpt from “Small Rooms” which is a version of Hamlet, but set in the bathrooms of New York (and in New York, every room ins a potential bathroom). My protagonist Ben (the Hamlet character) would love to escape the mundanity of this world for the perfection of literature, but he always finds himself in a bathroom!
As a writer, I feel Ben’s yearning, but also as a writer I know that no-one’s words transcend the world, but are always trapped in what Friedrich Nietzsche called “the prison-house of language.” So, in the “Broken Whisky Sonata” we see hope, love and guilt ooze across the stage. Where Shakespeare played it for tragedy, we will play it for farce.
-Dan Friedman, LABA Broken Fellow 2022