Macbeth and other guilty souls in literature

In his book "Guilt: The Bite of Conscience," published by Stanford University Press in October, Herant Katchadourian explores the many manifestations of guilt across disciplines, religions and philosophies. Here, Katchadourian, emeritus professor of psychiatry and human biology at Stanford University, assesses the role of guilt in literature.

GUEST BLOGGER: Herant Katchadourian

Clinicians and behavioral scientists focus mostly on the subjective and psychological aspects of guilt -- feeling guilty. Prophets, theologians, philosophers and legal scholars are more concerned with the objective element in guilt as culpability -- being guilty.

Literature offers a vast array of descriptions and insights into guilt that provide compelling illustrations of the experience of guilt, as well as penetrating insights into its nature.

The oldest, and most compelling example is the Greek tragedy, "Oedipus Rex," by Sophocles. The story of King Oedipus -- and Freud's Oedipus complex derived from it -- are well known. Oedipus admits to having committed the heinous crimes of parricide and incest, yet he vehemently denies being guilty. He rightly claims that his actions were ordained by the gods before he was born, and he committed them unknowingly and unwittingly ("...how, with any justice could you blame me?").

This moral dilemma is still with us. We no longer invoke the will of the gods but attribute instead our actions to the interplay between biological factors and social upbringing. We have no personal control over either of these. Yet we invoke the idea of a "free will" in order to hold people responsible for their actions.

St. Augustine's monumental "Confessions" is not a formal autobiography, but it contains a great deal of biographical material dealing with guilt. It is the model of the confessional genre in literature that serves as the vehicle for authors to bare their chests. And it was Augustine whose teachings on guilt became elaborated into the Christian doctrine of Original Sin.

Martin Luther (who revered Augustine) provides his own autobiographical accounts of struggles with a particularly obsessive form of guilt, called scrupulosity by the Catholic Church. ("I went to confession frequently, and performed the assigned penances faithfully. Nevertheless, my conscience could never achieve serenity..."). The realization that he could not achieve absolution by his own efforts, and could only be "justified by faith," freed him from his obsession with guilt and became the cornerstone of the Protestant Reformation.

Shakespeare (who was a psychologist before there were psychologists) provides compelling insights into guilt. The tragedy of Macbeth is a tale of murder that leads to a ferocious sense of guilt that drives Macbeth to his downfall, and Lady Macbeth into insanity and suicide ("...Here is the smell of blood still; all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand"). It is a cautionary tale of how unbridled ambition can drive even intelligent and upright individuals into striking a Faustian bargain with the devil and to their doom.

The contributions of literature to our understanding of guilt are complimentary rather the competitive with those of the behavioral sciences, religion and philosophy. Some experiences of guilt cannot be subjected to the quantification of behavioral studies, and the constraints of faith or reason.

Literature captures them more readily by bringing us closer to the personal experience of guilt. It allows for a more intuitive understanding, an imaginative extension, and a greater scope and latitude in the use of language that make possible a more subtle and nuanced understanding and expression of guilt in human lives and relationships.

By Steven E. Levingston |  November 20, 2009; 5:30 AM ET Steven Levingston
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Errol Flynn said he spent his whole life trying not to feel guilty about not working--saying he never thought work was worth much. He said he was happiest when lying on the deck of his yacht with a quart of vodka in hand--feeling one and a brother with Ulysses.

Guilt is a concomitant of free will. Here's Daniel C. Dennett on a rational understanding of free will. Rejecting any non-naturalistic cause of free will, he attributes it to biological and cultural evolution: "the power to veto our urges and then to veto our vetoes...the power of imagination, to see and imagine futures." It is our ability to project ahead with our minds, to play various scenarios in our heads, that "makes us moral agents. You don't need a miracle to have responsibility." See Dennett's 1984 book "Elbow Room."

Posted by: lheffelkcrrcom | November 20, 2009 10:29 AM

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