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Browning’s Monstrous Duke: The Metaxy, Quantum Mechanics and the Process to Destruction of the Phaulos in My Last Duchess

Browning’s Monstrous Duke: The Metaxy, Quantum Mechanics And The Process To Destruction Of The Phaulos In My Last Duchess

In his poem My Last Duchess, first published in 1842, Robert Browning creates one of the rarest types of character in literature: the phaulos. Understood in the sense of being the opposite of Aristotle’s spoudaios, who is the person perceived as a moral exemplar, the phaulos can be seen as utterly immoral. This type of character presents difficulties, both in terms of how we should react to him or her, and to the technical task of their literary creation and effective presentation. For example Shakespeare struggles with this phenomenon. His earlier “villains” tend to become almost comical: we think of Richard III’s bizarrely humorous asides, for example, which tend to mitigate our sense of the sheer horror that his actions should cause us to feel. Even  Macbeth’s apparent reluctance to commit evil acts, revealed in his monologues, show that he is not devoid of at least some ability to empathize. Shelley, too, gives us another example in his verse drama The Cenci through his presentation of Count Francesco Cenci, especially as the poet portrays the Count’s treatment of his daughter, Beatrice, which can be seen as the precursor to My Last Duchess.

Nevertheless, I think the murder of Cenci (interestingly offstage), like the death of Macbeth, does ultimately weaken the sheer threatening horror that the phaulos embodies.  Perhaps it is not until the final silence of Iago that Shakespeare finally completely presents the full horror of the utterly immoral character. And, towards the end of Othello, it is Iago’s very refusal to speak, his absolute silence, which highlights the presentational difficulty: it is the moral silence, the nihilistic unresponsiveness of the phaulos that is so difficult to convey. This type of character effectively robs the author of his main tool: emotionally expressive language.

However, Browning, it seems to me, manages to present most concisely and effectively the depth of the absolute moral horror of the phaulos in his Duke of Ferrara. My aim in this article will be to draw principally upon aspects of Voegelin’s notion of the metaxy, Desmond’s notion of being as metaxu, Whitehead and Griffin’s process philosophy, and Stapp’s quantum mechanics to examine more precisely how Browning achieves this. Therefore this will be a synoptic approach which will view together these various practices and different disciplines, and attempt to bring them into a synthesis. This general overview will further attempt to detect linking patterns among them which should enable new interpretative perspectives for the poem, even as the poem will reciprocally throw its light back onto the theoretical approaches themselves.

It is appropriate that My Last Duchess is in the form of a dramaticmonologue because this inaugurates the first stage of the reader’s sense of a pervasive alienation: the awareness of being talked at. The Duke addresses the count’s speechless emissary, and therefore, Browning’s reader in a way that we are made to feel that otherness itself is being entirely disregarded.  When we are talked to/at in this way, which ignores specifically our sense of our own substantial human individuality, we can be apt to feel it as a very personal threat. We are immediately made aware of alienating elements even as our understanding of their full consequence lags somewhat behind this. As this particular “last” Duchess is merely an object “painted on the wall,” and the Duke says, “I call/That piece a wonder, now” we are puzzled, wondering at the nature of the Duke’s “wonder” as he notes the painting, this “piece,” unless he means the Duchess herself. But what is this “wonder”?

At this stage our wondering may be caused by no more than a sense of the Duke’s curious phrasing, but this is also our first hint of something “not right” in this situation. I want to suggest that what we are sensing is that the Duke has a problem, that he seems completely unmoved by, or unaware of, an insufficient metaxic tension toward the (divine) truth, in the sense meant by Voegelin when he states ” . . . existence does not have the structure of order or, for that matter, of disorder, but the structure of a tension between truth and deformation of reality” (Voegelin 1990: 119). Therefore, our existence and our actions it seems must have an “orientation” towards one or the other of these “poles.” The Duke, in both his actions and his overall existential direction, it will increasingly become clear, is oriented towards the “deformation of reality” pole. But what is the nature of reality, and how is it being “deformed,” in this case by the Duke?

For Whitehead reality is experience itself, “the lure” or “event” of experience and time is a succession or process of these events1. Yet each experience is both a reflection of the presence of past experiences on a cosmic scale and during concrescence – when the entity decides/chooses how to proceed both in and with nature and the cosmos – of the momentary timeless “now.” This experience of the “now” is the individual experiencing the cosmion, making its freely determined “decision” out of the potentia of the future. Stapp puts it this way, “In quantum theory the purely physically described aspects are mere potentialities for real events to occur” (Stapp 2011: 136). Potentialities are like ideas or possibilities out of which we choose a future actuality. This, I would like to suggest, can be seen as similar to von Neumann’s “process 1,” the input of the observer, on the “cloud” or “smear” of quantum possibilities (in the sense of Schrödinger’s Equation). This picture is made massively more complex, however, by the “response” of nature itself (which Stapp, following Dirac, calls “process 3”) and, even more curiously, by what Stapp calls “process 0.”

Our task here, then, will be to analyze all these features of reality, both as they relate to each other in detail, and what the implications of them are, and how how the poem demonstrates the Duke’s “deformation” of them. First, recalling that this is a synoptic synthesis, a generalizing overview, I don’t want to get overly involved in the science qua scientific elements, for reasons of concision, except as they relate to the poem and the characterization of the phaulos that it presents. Fuller technically scientific explanations can be found in the cited texts.

Browning’s Duke, then, is interested in objects, as we have seen revealed by his attitude to the painting of the Duchess, and the poet reinforces this in the final image of the poem in the Duke’s reference to another of his possessions, the bronze statue of Neptune –  appropriately a depiction of control – “taming a seahorse.” We should be aware here that the Duke’s fetishization of solid objects is a curious, even darkly amusing yet certainly curiously common, manifestation of what Whitehead calls “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness,” which has correspondences to Voegelin’s concept of “Second Realities”: the “fetishized” replacements of an understanding of the “true” nature of the world.” It is a fallacious potentially deformed or deforming understanding of reality, as here, where the Duke, in his self-seducing fascination for art “objects” has turned the once flesh and blood being that was the Duchess into the forever-dead object that he can only “now” call a “wonder.”

Part of our horror is our appalled sense that the Duke is even enjoying himself! He has achieved his object, the complete control of the (dead) Duchess over whom he now has, we perceive, a for him satisfying power: she is now literally removed from sight, and even her picture is only revealed when he uncovers it, and, as he assures the Count’s emissary, “none puts by/The curtain I have drawn for you, but I.” Yet what does escape him is the control of our horror, which he has also “drawn.” But this curtain cannot be re-drawn. Browning’s art must compel us to morally move on, lest the capacity to do so “fust in us unused” which, given the dynamic processes of nature, would be to slide or “descend” into degrees of deformative immorality.

Yet, despite all his rampant materialism, the Duke seems to expect others to be content with the merely abstract, such as his “gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name” which the Duchess ranks. This is relevant precisely because the Duke’s principal modus operandi is his incessant need to control others. The poem is shot through with comments and images that reinforce our impression of this, and it is clearly Browning’s major focus has virtually complete power over all those around him. The Duke, we begin to understand, has ample opportunity to exercise “process 1” interventions. Although every experiential event is a consequence of the “probing” quality of this process, we find our Duke in a historically and culturally conditioned exceptionally fertile arena for effective interventions: who would dare to contradict him?

His guaranteed seeming success in getting what he wants functions like a peculiarly negative and very human version of the Quantum Zeno Effect (itself an appropriately dynamic “quantum version” of Zeno’s original position in which a static atomicity, a kind of anti-process, leads to the famous paradoxes). However, the QZE in repeatedly practiced actions will tend toward positive: the sense of a “yes,” leading to a collapse of the wave function, rather than a “no,” in which case “reality/Nature” does not respond and “process 1” must be abandoned with the probing process beginning again. Here I am assuming a continuum and thus an interrelationship with the macro-world of human actions that is consequential outcomes from and in Nature (“process 3”), although this is not at this stage necessarily in any moral or metaphysical sense. Nonetheless “something happens,” a curious and, in the field of the interrelations of human society, where a positive and natural response to human input leads to potentially negative consequences, a reversal of “process 3.”2 Browning presents the negations of nature as the consequences of the banality of the “evil” of the phaulitic character of the Duke, where the “mere” cause and effect of physicality proceeds into the affectivity of ethical morality.

How has this after all not uncommon effect of the absolute power to “probe” cause corruption? It is certainly not inevitable. Here it is a reflection of this Duke’s individuality, and his personal choices about how to act – history and culture do no more than facilitate this. His socio-cultural situation, which as we have seen gives him significant power over others and gives him an at least latent sense of responsibility towards them in their otherness, which is also their transcendence to the Duke – a mysterium tremendum et fascinans that both fascinates and terrifies us. If we are more terrified, and responsibility can clearly be terrifying, we may react by retreating into ourselves, which may induce a solipsism. It is as if in his life’s trajectory his management of his moment(s) of concrescence has by the cumulative effect of past decisions become self-corrupted by his own failure – a failure to relate substantially to others and to the cosmos as a reality in itself. This is his personal failure to take responsibility. Thus he has become a solipsist of the very worst kind: he is lethal to those he has power over, which is nearly everyone in his world and very definitely his last Duchess.

A particular element of the horror we feel is that, the Duke’s homicidal solipsism notwithstanding, he can communicate very well indeed! It is not only the Count’s emissary, to whom the Duke is nominally speaking, who ends up understanding him perfectly well, it is also the reader. The quintessential moment of horror, which Browning has prepared us for by making it apparent how the Duke tells the emissary, “She had/ A heart – how shall I say – too soon made glad.” The Duke has already spoken of “the depth and passion” of the Duchess’ disingenuous yet genuine responses to nature that reach beyond “Her husband’s presence only” and that were “calling up” that “spot/ Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek.” Browning shows us that the Duke does understand, even as he fails to empathize with, basic human pleasures.

Yet what makes the Duchess’ heart glad is precisely those innocent “natural” pleasures which are “organically” qualitative not quantitative: “The dropping of the daylight in the West” a “bough of cherries,” “the white mule/She rode with round the terrace” which all “draw from her alike the approving speech.” The point, of course, is that these are good things, living experiences, that it is “naturally” right to take pleasure in, pleasures that are not just physical, even if they start with physical causes. They are aesthetic and they have a moral and ethical dimension. Thus when the Duke says, verbally somewhat ambiguously, that “I gave commands; Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands / As if alive,” (emphasis added), the reader should recoil in horror as Browning here, at the emotional center of the poem, has the Duke exemplify the utter immorality of the phaulos3. This is the ultimate communication of the cessation of communication. This is not a paradox: the Duchess is dead; but we are not, and Browning’s art ensures that we must live with our horrified consciousness of what we know.

However, there is a final element that we have yet to consider and it demands consideration. What I mentioned above: the mysterious “process 0.” It is perhaps this process which will enable us to move beyond an entirely “helpless” feeling of horror (as it can also “move” us beyond the merely physical towards the metaphysical and the transcendent Beyond itself), although the horror will nevertheless remain. Henry Stapp describes in detail what he calls “process 0”:

“Finally, in connection with each process 1 action, there is, presumably, some process that is not described by contemporary quantum theory, but that determines what the so-called ‘free choice’4 of the experimenter [in a quantum wave/particle experiment] will actually be. This choice seems to us to arise, at least in part, from conscious reasons and valuations, and it is certainly influenced by the state of the brain of the experimenter.” (Stapp 2011: 24 ).

Stapp calls this “process 0” “because this process must precede von Neumann’s “process 1” (ibid: 24). He goes on to say: “It is the absence from orthodox quantum theory of any description on the workings of process 0 that constitutes the causal gap in contemporary physical theory” (ibid: 24).

It is this “causal gap” which “blocks the closure of the physical, and thereby releases human actions from the immediate bondage of physically described aspects of reality” (ibid: 24-25). Perhaps this “causal gap” is the “space” that only the metaphysical can fill? The ontological space that is more than only the physical: it is the metaxological “room to maneuver,” the guarantor of actual freedom – a freedom to achieve the truly ethical. It will become ever clearer how the Duke radically fails in this. Unfortunately, as we probably all know and, as Browning’s poem demonstrates, freedom from the tyranny of the physical does not necessarily lead to ethical behavior. So, we now need to ask whether there may be another way to approach “process 0,” and also a way to attempt to understand more fully the, to put it mildly, unethical character of the Duke.

Henry Stapp talks about behavior and ethics and the role of conscious reflection and evaluation and says “the core of the effective input is the individual’s self-image . . . One’s weighting of the welfare of the whole, and one’s sensitivity to the feelings of others” (ibid: 116). His point, and we should certainly see how this concerns Browning’s presentation of the Duke, is that this:

“. . .  feeling . . . will surely be enhanced when the individual sees his or her own judgments and efforts as causally effective – hence important – inputs into a co-operative effort to develop the vast yet-to-be-fixed potentialities of a quantum universe that, as Bohr emphasized, can be properly conceived only as an intricately interconnected whole” (ibid: 116-117).

Well, yes, the Duke does manifest all these qualities, except with one overwhelming difference, he does not care about “the feelings of others” or “the welfare of the whole.”  This is what makes the Duke a phaulos; he has “sunk” below the level of any positive feeling or empathy towards, even if he has the ability to understand human relations generally. The Duke, then, does seem to have some sense of the universe as “an intricately connected whole,” yet this is not enough for him.  So, our question must be that given the Duke’s obvious, if cunningly manipulative, intelligence and language, why is he so oriented in the opposite direction of anything that could reasonably be called good or positive? Why has his, as it were, inner moral compass gone so awry, as it “points” towards the deformation of reality rather than the truth of reality? Why has he sunk so low on the spoudaic spectrum5 that he has become this monster?

It seems that we need more theoretical support here and fortunately we have it in Whitehead’s “lure” and Voegelin’s metaxy. Whitehead’s “lure” in some ways reveals what some may see as an element of ambiguity in his thinking which has split his followers into two camps, which are basically secular or non-secular.6 These arguments are complex and I can only allude to them here as far as they pertain to our Duke. However, it seems to me that the secular version will lead to the puzzle that we have already described, and leave the horror that we feel unassuaged, as we react to Browning’s poem. On the contrary, the non-secular (used here in a strictly non-denominational sense), and again I shall bring in Voegelin, can at least begin offer us a way to accommodate at least the utter immorality of the Duke, and the phaulos more generally.

First, we need to ask what, precisely, is this “lure” of Whitehead’s. Following Plato Whitehead considers “that the divine element in the world is to be conceived as a persuasive agency and not as a coercive agency” (Whitehead 1978: 96). This agency or divine element, Plato’s peitho, must be that which functions as what earlier Whitehead has called a “lure for feeling” (ibid: 85) which “invites” our propositions or our “process 1” probings. From the secular point of view, a proposition, in the words of Gaskill and Nocek, is “not a statement about the world to be judged true or false, not a tool for unveiling the truth behind appearances, but a possibility that draws those who entertain it into a different way of feeling their world” (Gaskill and Nocek, eds, 2014: 6). But, it seems to me that this must relativize any concept of what “true or false” may correspond with to no more than something like “imagination.”  This will not lessen the horror we feel at the Duke’s actions, but it certainly robs us of any means of judging them as “truly” immoral, for what could constitute the pair moral/immoral if we have no way of judging statements “about the world to be judged true or false?” But there may be another way to understand more fully the character of the Duke.

At this point, we need to go back and look again more closely at Stapp’s expansion of von Neumann’s “process 1” and “process 2” through his additions of “process 3” and “process 0,” asking in more detail what they tell us about wave/particle physics and how, in turn, continue in the spirit of the generalizing method of synopsis and synthesis to explain something about the Duke and his actions. “Process 1” is a “straightforward” probing action that leads to an effect of the observer on the observed, and “process 2” is the collapse of the spread out or smeared wave function into a particular state. This is the standard Copenhagen interpretation of orthodox quantum physics.

However if, proceeding with due caution, we can incorporate Einstein’s “spooky” actions-at-a-distance, which require the transfer of information at speeds faster than the speed of light, and further consider that this “instant” transfer describes a fundamental property or process of the subatomic or micropsychophysical (panexperiential/entangled/interrelated) substrate out of which the apparently material macro world “emerges,” then Stapp’s “process 0” “must precede von Neumann’s process 1” (Stapp 2011: 24) must somehow be enabled to utilize the aforementioned closure-blocking “causal gap,” and interact with “process 1,” which seems rather like the space in which Whitehead’s process phase concrescence happens, if we can then call this the “release . .  from the bondage of physically described aspects of reality.”  It is also something like Voegelin’s notion of the “Depth” and Whitehead’s “primordial nature of God,” which would seem to be the same or very similar in/out of which depth “spookily” instantaneously proceeds, exactly those which Stapp refers to as “process 3,” to the “process 1” probings into “process 2” chosen by the free will of observers (who are thus actors).

Browning’s Duke, as a symbol of a recognizable human type7, is thus an actor in the world. The Duke’s consciousness, particularly with its specifically human quality of reflective distance ( a “mindfulness” something like a condition of being actively conscious that one is conscious), in conjunction with the serial nature of his behavior (the poem leaves us in no doubt of the Duke’s monstrous egotism) “activates” the QZE “‘influencing” nature’s “process 3” responses which become the affected-by-human-choices manifestations out of the depth in response to “process 0.” In other words “process 3,” in conjunction with the “process 1 “probings of “process 2” proceeds to what Whitehead calls the “consequent nature of God,” and this is affected, in its turn, by the world. If we consider this affect in the light of the consequences of the actions of a phaulos like the Duke, we can see the poem as an illustration of the type of actions/probing of the world that led Whitehead to describe God as our “fellow sufferer,” and Desmond as our “constant companion,” in the ontological totality, the heteros, that is god-and-the-world8.

In this participatory totality, of and in which humans have only a perspective, the depth is that in which everything (God, Man, Society, the World, to invoke Voegelin’s quaternary model) is interrelated. It is thus appropriate that Stapp assigns a “0” (“0” symbolizes the “overdetermined”) to the process that I am linking to Voegelin’s notion of “the Depth,” which he links to the Platonic symbol “depth of the soul,” beyond articulate experience9. However, Voegelin goes on to say, “Though the experience of the depth does not add to the substantive content of the experiences and (their) symbols . . . it has a content peculiar to itself: it conveys insight into the process of reality . . .” (Voegelin 1990: 124). This links directly with the notion of the “divine tension” is that the “spoudaic spectrum” and is also a continuum. Voegelin sums this up:

“We consciously experience the psyche as a reality extending beyond consciousness. The area ‘beyond’ is of the same nature as the reality of consciousness. Moreover, the two areas are a continuum of psychic reality in which man can move by the actions and passions symbolized by ascent and descent” (ibid: 126).

Whitehead himself clarifies in many places his understanding of God, and it is a very complex position. Nevertheless, especially as it relates to the present discussion, one more aspect is particularly important, the question of our understanding of the degree of power “possessed” by God, which must be related to Whitehead’s (and Plato’s) understanding of God as a persuasive agency. After all, if God could coerce, then what would be the point or even possibility, of any other agency possessing anything like free will or any kind of moral responsibility? Thus we are still left with a problem as to how to accommodate our feelings about the Duke’s actions. David Ray Griffin comments succinctly, “although God is all-powerful, God’s power is ‘merely’ the unique power to create a universe, not also omnipotence, understood as the power, once creatures are created, to override their power” (Griffin 2016: 39). Now if this is the case, we have a route back to being able to judge the Duke morally and understand both him, and ourselves more fully, which I assume to have been at least among Browning’s intentions when he wrote the poem.

So, Griffin’s perspective of creation/creativity takes on a most central role.10 God has the power to create, and creatures are created too with the power to create. Thus god and creatures have a dynamic interrelationship and the whole of reality can be considered, in Griffin’s helpful phrase used above, as “god-and-the-world”’ Not the One and the many, rather, panentheistically, the One in the many, and vice-versa, a One both of the world and beyond it: a dual-aspect monism. But, the (free) will of the Duke11 becomes its negative: extremely destructive. This is a “One” that is “more” than one, what Desmond usefully calls an “overdetermined plenitude,” or as he further expresses the notion, “overdeterminate: both indeterminate and determinate.”

In her novel The Black Prince the philosopher/novelist Iris Murdoch has one of the characters, Bradley Pearson, say, “I dare say human wickedness is sometimes the product of a sort of conscious leeringly evil intent. But more usually it is the product of a semi-deliberate, a sort of swooning relationship to time” (Murdoch 1973: 189). This does, indeed, seem to describe, many, perhaps most, manifestations of “human wickedness,” and captures well a sense of the almost “lazy” quality of the many instances of evil that are rather like failures of the imagination, where imagination is synonymous with positive creativity.

Further, there is the modern concept of the sociopath, and certainly the Duke displays many qualities that are could be called psychopathological; but while these may be adequate notions to describe some cases, and some elements of the Duke’s behaviour clinically,12 the evil manifest by the Duke goes far further than this. Is the Duke as a phaulos then merely a nihilist? I do not think so, because the Duke avoids the obvious performative contradiction that nihilism invokes: the phaulos does not paradoxically assert the essential no-thingness of things; on the contrary, a phaulos like our Duke, valorizes the thingness of things to an extent that would reify the whole world. But the phaulos, of course, misses the point that the world so reified is a dead world. Thus we confront the horrifying ego of the sheer will to power of the phaulos: the Duke would wish to be the only one actively present in his dead world of objects13.

In a similar way the effectiveness of Iago’s silence, his active refusal to speak is consequent upon the “power” of his “living” presencewhich is why Shakespeare cannot “kill” him before Othello ends, and this is precisely where the presentation of Iago differs from the poet’s presentation of the other Shakespearian “villains.” Further, however  efficient the phaulos may be, like the nihilist (and to this extent there is a similarity) their thinking is certainly entirely without metaphysical subtlety, notwithstanding that we may feel, as Jacques Maritain once did, that because of the self-deception involved in the denial of their own logical inconsistencies, that an actual total nihilist cannot, in reality, exist.

However, the phaulos very definitely can. Understood, as here, as any individual with phaulitic tendencies that are manifest passed the point of metaxic imbalance and revealed, as with the Duke, by their actions towards others. So this is never any question of a form of absolutism and thus the contradictions of the would-be nihilist and the “autistic” utter silence-as-non-communication of the sociopath are avoided. In a sense neither of these is a problem for the artist: their non-communicativeness “speaks” for itself. Neither Iago nor the Duke are “simply” sociopathic nihilists. The opposite of the patient suffering silence of Job, Iago’s raging roaring silence screams at us, just as the Duke’s eloquence does; and, as I said at the start, the representation of this type of character therefore remains a challenge and a problem in art.

Whitehead considers that the aim of the cosmos is a progressive “threefold urge: (i) to live, (ii) to live well, and (iii) to live better” (Whitehead 1929/1978: 8). This is an index of the potential of how experience can evolve; but, because this must require a general freedom, this kind of teleological evolution is not inevitable. The Duke, as we have seen, does possess a certain intelligence, yet despite the opportunities afforded by his fortunate position in his society – he even has a burgeoning quasi-artistic sensibility: he knows what to collect –  he cannot, by any commonly understood moral criteria, be said to “live well” or “live better”; he exemplifies what Desmond calls “the surge of self-insistence” of the individual whose ego closed into its own original power, asserts itself in its own self-production. It tries to make its own whole by making itself the goal of its own infinite restlessness. It loves itself and nothing but itself (Desmond 1995: 402).

As such, the Duke personifies the life-denying destructive banality of human evil. This kind of evil, that is the consequence of human choices, is radically unlike the equally free working-out of natural processes which are not culpable because not mindful or capable of self-reflection in the same way. Although clearly this type of “evil” can and will sometimes have catastrophic effects, it should be considered a metaphysical “problem.” The evil caused by human beings must be understood as a “metaphysical enigma” that in denying the freedom of others would ultimately, impossibly and thus banally, deny freedom itself, and the poem demonstrates the consequences of just this sort of denial.

This denial, then, amounts to a fundamental lack of awareness of the need to let others be (in their freedom to be) and, ultimately, an apparent non-awareness of the original overdetermined being of the origin itself in the primal letting be of our free cosmic order. Literary examples abound: Hamlet arrives at his understanding of this “Let be” too late; a potential spoudaios, like Cormac McCarthy’s John Grady Cole (from The Border Trilogy) seems always to have such an awareness. This awareness is perhaps best summed up by Molly Bloom’s final freedom embracing “yes.” The Duke has little or no such awareness, and this is an affront to the “aim of the cosmos” and as such is perhaps the most basic element here that has, as it were, underwritten our burgeoning sense of horror as the Duke has made the Count’s representative (and we have seen how Browning’s art has had the reader feel this too, the pressure of this insistence) endure his whole speech in silence, in the ironic quiet of the silenced.

The Duke, we learn, is probably about to become a serial-killer, as he tells the emissary that the Count his master’s “fair daughter’s self, as I awowed /At starting, is my object” (and we have little doubt that he will be successful in this “transaction”). Further, the Duke continually uses rhetorical questions that effectively silence the listener. These are among the types of qualities and practices that make the Duke so horrifying, and so utterly immoral: his immorality is not semi-deliberate; neither is it the product of any kind of half-hearted, half interested or motivated “swooning relationship to time”; but it is thoroughly the product of a “decidedly conscious leeringly evil intent” that has become habitual.14

And this is the quality, and the quantity there is of it, that makes the Duke a phaulos. The phaulos overwhelms our “normal” standards of morality because the phaulos has descended very far down the spoudaic spectrum, which is also the “tension towards the divine” identified by Voegelin, a “measure,” in a case like this, of an individual’s “disorder” of the tension between “truth and deformation of reality.” This deformation is rather like a compass shielded from magnetic north: it will point in a direction, but it will very probably not be the “correct” one. For Whitehead, Griffin, and Voegelin, this “magnetic north” would be the divine itself, but, we remember, our present interpretation sees the divine as persuasive, and it cannot coerce. The human individual is thus necessarily the possessor of genuinely free will and with this must therefore bear the full responsibility for their actions and the consequences of those actions. We can perhaps begin to understand more how, and to what an extent, the Duke that Browning is symbolizing here, is a bad partner, a bad fellow creator in and of the World. This is how actions like the Duke’s affect the entire interrelated cosmos, the “overdetermined plenitude” of the origin from the apeirontic depth  to the divine good itself.15

Each of us is capable of feeling our world, and ourselves, as equivocal and ambiguous: it is the human condition. As Desmond puts it “There is no univocity of the human heart. It is an equivocal abyss. Monsters thrive there . . .” precisely, “monster(s) of self-will” (Desmond 1995: 521). It is this type of “monster”16 that the Duke is, and which personifies the monstrousness of the phaulos.  The phaulos, then, is culpable, is a consequence of monstrous self-will: no defense could plausibly argue a case of diminished responsibility because this is not an example of irresponsibility in any psychopathological or in any medical or psychiatric sense. The Duke’s is a metaphysical culpability, a metaphysical irresponsibility that amounts to a betrayal to and of himself, to others and towards the transcendent good of being itself.

Browning even has the Duke state, in the closest he has him get to any kind of “excuse” or reason for his actions, that even if the Duchess had let herself be “lessoned . . . and made excuse – /E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose/ Never to stoop” (emphasis added). Thus the Duke, as the whole poem forcefully demonstrates, knows precisely what he is doing, because he has chosen to act in this way, because the free human being can always decide not to be persuaded by God. Browning’s  Duke is an entity and each entity, as Whitehead tells us, “derives from God its basic conceptual aim, relevant to its actual world, yet with indeterminations awaiting its own decisions” (Whitehead 1929: 247, emphasis added). Each entity, then, as Stapp has shown us, proceeds via “process 1” probings that are “influenced,” not determined, by “process 0,” affect “process 2” and cause a response, positively or negatively, and with potentially positive or negative consequences, from “process 3.”17

However this may be, the degree of egregious evil, this misuse of creativity/creative potential and its deformation into devastating destructiveness that we witness from the Duke, is, as I said at the start, rare both in literature and in actuality possibly never exists in the pure form that an artist can create. The phaulos would deny the ontological truth of the metaxological condition of human being with its constant need for balance, and the necessity for the constant re-balancing that “the tension between truth and the deformation of reality” requires. Too many phauli in any human society would dangerously unbalance that society and would be a lethal threat to the members of that society in the same way that the Duke is a lethal threat to those he has power over, those whose freedom he would deny; especially poignantly  in regard of those who are innocent as the Duchess clearly is. But if, through our engagement with Browning’s art, we have been horrified by the Duke’s utter immorality,18  if we have perhaps recognized something in it latent in our own selves and in our own attitudes and actions, it is because the potential to descend, as well as ascend the spectrum or continuum between the positive elements and the negative elements of the depth.19  The poem presents this choice to each of us every time we choose how to act.



Desmond, William (1995) Being and the Between. Albany, NY:  State University of New York Press.

Gaskill, Nicholas; Nocek, A. J. (2014) The Lure of Whitehead. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Griffin, David Ray (2016) God Exists but Gawd Does Not. From Evil To New Atheism To Fine Tuning. Anoka, Minnesota: Process Century Press.

Kauffman, Stuart A. (2008) Reinventing the Sacred, A New View of Science, Reason and Religion. New York: Basic Books.

Mesle, C. Robert (2008) Process-Relational Philosophy. An Introduction to Alfred North Whitehead. West Conshocken, Philadelphia: Templeton Press.

Miller, Barry (2002) The Fulness of Being. A New Paradigm for Existence. Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press.

Murdoch, Iris (1970) The Sovereignty of the Good. Abingdon and New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Murdoch, Iris (1973) The Black Prince. London: Chatto and Windus.

Murphy, Michael (1992) The Future of the Body. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher.

Stapp, Henry P (2011) Mindful Universe. Quantum Mechanics and the Participating Observer (2nd Edition) Berlin Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag.

Voegelin, Eric (1990) Published Essays 1966-1985, Complete Works Volume 12, Ed. Ellis Sandoz. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

Whitehead, Alfred North (1929) The Function of Reason. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Whitehead, Alfred North (1929/1978) Process and Reality. An Essay in Cosmology. Corrected Edition, Edited by D. R. Griffin and D.W. Sherburne. New York: Free Press.



1. I have necessarily, for the sake of managing the size of the present discussion, necessarily vastly oversimplified Whitehead’s notion of experience. It is discussed in all his major texts and in most commentaries on his work.

2. These “process” 1 probing actions lead to “quantum jumps.” Whiteheadian panexpererientialism would seem to require that everything that exists is therefore engaged in “probing actions.” This may be so in principal, “but”, as Stapp says, “the jumps not associated with our conscious thoughts, or with the thoughts of entities with whom we can reliably communicate, insofar as they actualize macroscopic patterns of physical activity, are – due to interactions with the environment – for all practical purposes (FAPP), impossible to detect” (Stapp 2011: 159-160). Thus, in this context, we can ignore non-human, and therefore non-communicable actions.

We might further speculate to what extent this actualization differs from straightforward cause and effect, in the sense of Newton’s solid bodies or Leibniz’s windowless nomads acting externally on each other. What we seem to have here is a kind of cause and effect that moves into a deeper intimacy: a cause and effect that becomes as well a cause and affect. Thus the “macroscopic patterns of physical activity” and the affective patterns at the panexperiential/metaxological/metaphysical “levels” are intimately and inextricably interwoven. This would seem to hold at the human level, even if (FAPP) we can here ignore the non-human. Although, of course, the “interweaving” would actually be universal, especially at the stage or vector of the meta (see Note 4 below).

What I am suggesting here is that this specifically human aspect of the universality of existence does “legitimate” what might fairly be called quantum leaps of speculative imagination (which are a part of existence) such as the present  inter-weaving of ideas from diverse fields, especially if it yields yet further fruitful speculations and ideas. After all whether we are discussing quantum physics, or poetry, or a poem, they are all consequences of (a) human consciousness(s) participating and interacting with each other and with, and within, the cosmic totality.

It is also interesting to note the similarity between how Stapp conceives of the “mindful” with Desmond’s conception of “mindfulness.” Further parallels, can be found in Voegelin’s notions of “self-reflective distance” and “anamnesis,” Lonergan’s “Insight,” and Whitehead’s concept of the “experiencing entity,” by which he implicitly means everything that exists, a position made explicit in Griffin’s “panexperientialism.” From biology studies there is Stuart Kauffman’s description of consciousness as “associated with a poised state betweencoherent” behavior and what is called ‘decoherence’ of quantum possibilities to ‘classical’ actual events” (Kauffman 2008: 197).

See also my Spoudaios article (see Note 5 below). None of these terms is exactly synonymous, but, as used and applied by these thinkers and the presence or, more likely, of any consciousness of, or empathy with, such notions, which are all understandings of an essential universal dynamism, could be another general index of the human individual’s “position” on what I have called the “spoudaic spectrum.” Here, we are reflecting on just where the Duke of Ferrara, as Browning presents him, may be on this scale.

3. The Duchess has spoudaic potential (see Note 5) seen here as initiated by what William Desmond has described as “agapeic astonishment,” which he sees as “more” than Aristotelian “wonder”: “In astonishment one does not take possession of, or grasp anything. One finds oneself illuminated by a sudden surge of light: something – exactly what is hard to fix – is being revealed” (Desmond 1995: 8). This is certainly a revealing utterly different in its nature to the Duke’s “wonder” (itself, of course, a travesty of Aristotle’s wonder) at the (dead) Duchess’s portrait.

4. It is interesting to consider Stapp’s language use here: is it metaphorical or is it literal? In what sense could “free choice” be “determined” one is tempted to ask? And if it “seems to us” to arise from consciousness, to whom or what might it possess a different status? Stapp can hardly be attempting to realise any straightforward “univocity” in such a context of plurivocity, I suggest, therefore his language use would seem to be necessarily metaxic in the sense that it is between and beyond simple binaries like “free” and “determined.”

Stapp, then, would be using the meta language of transcendence, in a sense explained by William Desmond: ‘The meta is a vector of transcendence, a going of mind towards an original that cannot be exhaustively included in one univocal language . . . The meta keeps open the space of a difference; the possible otherness of the microevents remains – otherness in both the sense of irreducibility to the knower, and otherness in the sense of retaining its own reservoir of possibility, a reservoir that may still continue to surprise and astonish us with revelations yet unimagined” (Desmond 1995: 100-102).

How different, finally, are metaphor and reality, especially in view of our metaxological situation? To quote Desmond once more, “Metaphor may be a revelation of reality. Metapherein – the thing carries itself across to revelation, metaphorizes itself; this is its spread beyond univocal identity. In its self-metaphorizing, it reaches out to more, reaches into the meta, the middle” (ibid: 310). It – the thing here – is the thinking (or “merely” experiencing) subject in all its singularity and its objectifying plurivocity, always simultaneously present in the metaxy.

5. See my The Spoudaios in Western Literature.

6. C. Robert Mesle, for example, states in relation to disagreements about Whitehead’s thought, “Perhaps the most significant relate to the question of God. I am among those who think that Whitehead may have flown too high and reached too far beyond the ground of empirical justification when he felt that his vision or reality required the existence of a divine entity” (Mesle 2008: 83).

7. T. S. Friedlando has shown that the Duke is modelled Alfonso II, fifth Duke of Ferrara, who was born in 1533, and married Lucrezia de Medici, then fourteen, in 1558. She died in 1561, and poison was suspected. In 1556 the Duke married the daughter of Ferdinand I, Count of Tyrol. The emissary conducting the negotiations was one Nikolaus Madruz.

8. Michael Murphy quotes the Romanian author Petru Dumitriu’s interesting and relevant observation, “Every contact with evil is indissolubly linked with its own chastisement, and God suffers. It is for us to ease His sufferings, to increase His joy and enhance his ecstasy” (Murphy 1990: 154). Of course this is precisely what the Duke does not do, and it is a function of Browning’s art that part of our horror is caused by our sense, or even fear, of the “chastisement” that must apparently inevitably follow from this “contact with evil” that we feel in Duke’s morally offensive-to-the-cosmos actions.

9. Murdoch captures the apophatic difficulty in attempts to represent God effectively: “I shall suggest that God was (or is) a single perfect transcendent non-representable and necessarily real object of attention; and I shall go on to suggest that moral philosophy should attempt to retain a central concept which has all these characteristics” (Murdoch 1970: 54).

10. “We finite actualities do not have our creativity – our power to exert self-causation and other-causation – because God granted it to us (in which case God could cancel it). Rather, creativity belongs to the world as eternally as it belongs to God. Put otherwise, there is worldly creativity (meaning creativity as embodied in the world) as well as divine creativity (creativity as embodied in God)” (Griffin 2016: 259).

11. Free will, per se, is of course not absolute, it is always limited by the range of possibility, the potentia of the cosmos as they are manifest in our particular world: Whitehead has observed that our post big-bang universe is “merely” the “incoming of a certain type of order.” We are indeed creatures of and in the metaxy and no univocal, unconditioned or totalizing perspective that we hold, nor any physical action that we perform, can ever be entirely free from the ambiguous equivocity of the essential dynamics of this “our” cosmic order. Nonetheless, our choices within our world are, and must be, at least to this extent, that we humanly make them and that they have real consequences in the world, truly ours and truly free.

12. I am suggesting that the Duke, as Browning presents him, cannot be “reduced” to such clinical analyses because such procedures, which are essentially mechanistic or materialistic interpretations of human behavior, have no place for, and no conception of anything like the tension towards the divine that provides the necessary “structure of a tension between truth and deformation of reality” (Voegelin 1990: 119).  The use of  phaulos and spoudaios enables us to significantly deepen our understanding of what Robert Browning is attempting in this poem. Further, Browning’s art is relevant not least in the way that it often demonstrates how art itself can, in a sense, rise above the ambiguities in the very “structure of (the) tension between truth and the deformation of reality” itself of human existence by showing us “ugly” characters (see Note 13 below) from, and within, this metaphysical perspective that itself “transcends” their, or the, mere ugliness.

13. An example of a “more” nihilistic character can be found in Browning’s poem Porphyria’s Lover (written around the same time as My Last Duchess). Here the “speaker” addresses no-one and seems almost catatonically subdued  yet betrays a sense still of the metaphysical by expressing something like surprise at the poem’s end when God, whom we assume that the speaker assumes, has “witnessed” his murderous activity and yet “has not said a word.” Some of our horror at the Duke comes from our sense that the Duke lacks even this much sense of the metaphysical and is therefore, though “less” nihilistic, even more actively dangerous – the phaulos may thus be even more threatening because, paradoxically perhaps, they are more metaphysically insensitive than the nihilist.

14. This, then, is a very different type of banality to akrasia which Aristotle describes as weakness of the will: video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor. Our Duke may or may not see the better course, it hardly matters here, but he certainly chooses to follow the worse course. Akrasia, then, is “merely” weak will, a form of stupidity yet, as we have seen, the Duke is not stupid, and this is an important element in his nature as Browning has made apparent.

15. See my essay Voegelin and the Ultimate Good, accompanying my article Language, Power and the Relativity of Truth in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

16. Desmond, more fully, writes “The equivocality inwardizes the sense of the good, the sense of evil. It doubles the self in its inwardness, making it potentially a monster of self-will, or a saint of sacrificial love” (Desmond 1995: 521-522). If the “monster of self-will” is, as I have suggested, the phaulos, then the “saint of sacrificial love” must be the spoudaios (see above).

17. The “links” between the “probing” activity of “process 1” and the responses to it of “process 3” have intriguingly close parallels to the notions of grace that are found in most, if not all of the world’s major religions (although they are more emphasized, perhaps, in Western traditions). This often involve a curious interweaving of passivity and activity at both the human pole and, most importantly in light of the proposition that God is not omnipotent, the divine pole of the cosmos.

18. Browning seems to have horrified himself, or certainly his nineteenth century audience. He apparently said, bizarrely weakening the dramatic force of his poem, “I meant that the commands were that she should be put to death . . . Or he might have had her shut up in a convent” (According to H. Corson in An Introduction to the Study of Robert Browning’s Poetry, 3rd edition, Heath, 1903).

19. This is the depth as Apieron. In Voegelin, following, and modifying, Anaximander, this is the depth understood in its infinitely chaotic, disordered, destructive capacities: the opposite of the divine. Desmond asks us to “recall the Greek horror of to apeiron” and describes this horror as “a kind of metaphysical recoil from the lack of intelligibility of sheer indefiniteness . . .  the upshot: to be intelligible is to be definite and bounded; to be unintelligible is to be indefinite and boundless” (Desmond 1995: 344).

Further, the Australian philosopher Barry Miller has interestingly described the boundless and the bound in terms of the limit case and the limit simpliciter. For example speed is any amount of acceleration above zero, and thus any speed at all is what it is simpliciter, a part of a series; but the limit case of speed is zero, i.e. not a speed in terms of acceleration.  Zero in this case is a stasis (not necessarily absolute or atomistic as it is in Zeno): it is a stasis that is redolent with dynamic potential. It is that which our concept of speed must be formulated with. Thus it is an example of an essential otherness that must be present in all our activities, mental and physical, for them to be anything at all. The alternative would be an undifferentiated nothingness, and the fact that this can be specified as such is in itself a demonstration of the impossibility of the existence of such a nihil.

In Voegelin this is the Transcendent Ground, in Bernard Lonergan’s work it is the Unconditioned, for Whitehead it is the “process” itself in Stapp it is the “causal gap” that allows our judgements and efforts as individuals, precisely those “inputs into a co-operative effort to develop the vast yet-to-be-fixed potentialities of the quantum universe”  that “inextricably connected whole”; and in Desmond’s it is the Origin. In each case it is regarded as essential and the essentially other which nevertheless “grounds” every existent. To deny this essential, perhaps even paradoxical, otherness somehow  would be to deny that which cannot finally be denied without fundamentally changing its nature.

Browning’s Duke does precisely this: he “changes” the Duchess from a human being into a painting “actually,” just as Claus of Innsbruck has had to “change” both Neptune and the seahorse into bronze “figuratively”: active or figurative the end result is the same – something’s nature has been changed or denied to allow the Duke his, however illusory, possession of an object. However, the Duchess may be physically dead and her portrait may be under the Duke’s control, but every time he pulls the curtain aside he merely reveals that it will still be, has been, and must now continue being, her individual self in its otherness that is the strongest “determiner” of what we think of him.   

Stephen H. ConlinStephen H. Conlin

Stephen H. Conlin

Steve Conlin is an independent scholar whose Master's thesis was on Hans-Georg Gadamer's "Truth and Method" from the University of Southhampton in England.

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