On King Lear and Peacocks

by Siegfried Othmer | August 14th, 2017

A recent article in the NY Review of Books covers an ongoing controversy about the major differences in an early version of King Lear and the later version, the First Folio. The book under review makes the case for a definitive version that has gone missing.

What makes this topic appropriate for our newsletter is the observation that no matter what space any authority occupies in this ongoing controversy, they all appear to be far more certain of their position than is justified by the available facts. After all, the evidence for the missing version is all circumstantial.

I recall a discussion I had years ago with David Kaiser on the even more basic, and much more contentious, issue of whether William Shakespeare actually wrote the plays for which he is given credit. At the time, David was reading a critical treatise making the “No” case rather persuasively—-which drives yet other authorities right up the wall.

All around, there appears to be too much certainty on issues beyond the reach of evidence. Uncertainty about the underlying facts, instead of serving to moderate the debates and soften positions actually tends to give them even more heat and vehemence by bringing in issues of ego, authority, weight of opinion, and professional stature.

The extremes to which this can go is hard for an outsider to believe. One is reminded of Henry Kissinger’s observation that the fights in academia are so vicious because the stakes are so small. His statement is weak on logic, but on the mark in terms of its psychological truth value.

When Sue Othmer was making herself at home at Langmuir Lab at Cornell as a fresh graduate student in neurobiology, she snagged an old desk with drawers on both sides, and someone located an old rug to put down in their office. That was not ok with a junior professor, who pointed out that graduate student desks were to have only one set of drawers, not two, and graduate student offices weren’t entitled to have rugs on the floor. Oh, boy. Status-consciousness can reach even this low a level? In academia, it can.

I am reminded of a celebration years ago at Peter Strauss Ranch, one of the local State parks, that was known for its resident peacocks. Inside the assembly room a life-size peacock had been made out of straw and put in place as the centerpiece on the table for the morning’s festivities. As light dawned next day, the veranda was covered in the droppings of peacocks. The resident birds had espied the intruder through the large plate-glass window, and had no doubt tried all night to get the interloper to leave their turf by strutting their stuff and acting belligerent. The project must have kept them there most of the night in order to account for all those droppings. All the while, they failed to notice that the straw imposter had given no sign of life, and in fact did not even look like them. It was merely shaped like them. Even that meagre resemblance was enough to uncork their vigorous counter-measures.

And thus it is with poor King Lear, with William Shakespeare… and with neurofeedback. Just think about how much more we know than those who rush to be quoted in the denunciation of neurofeedback… Let it be a salve to our irritation to think of them by analogy to those peacocks. The solid reality of neurofeedback sits in the window out of their reach, while academics threatened in their position of authority in these matters puff themselves up on the outside, fulminating against disagreeable reality. Not for long, though. Their ignorant posturing is just about done.

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