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

HomeArticlesBrowning’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 the spoudaios described by Aristotle, 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, whatever else they achieve dramatically, do 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 empathise. 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, as we shall see, the full presence of 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 perhaps nihilistic unresponsiveness of the phaulos that is so difficult to convey (we shall look at these elements again below). 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 and 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 from, in many ways, very different disciplines, and attempt to bring them into a synthesis, a general overview, which will further attempt to detect linking patterns amongst them which should enable new interpretative perspectives as we refer them to the poem, even as the poem will reciprocally throw its light back onto the theoretical approaches themselves: an ‘adventure of ideas’ which may shed new light on a familiar text, and on some perhaps not so familiar notions.

It is appropriate that My Last Duchess is in the form of a dramatic monologue 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, you and me, in a way that we are made to feel that otherness-in-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, and Browning’s alienating language choices are precise. 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 may well be puzzledly 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 (for reasons that I will discuss below), which is 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, or rather the 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 (or probe) both in and with nature and the cosmos – of the momentary timeless thus non-static atomic ‘now’, the individually experiencing cosmion is making its freely determined ‘decision’ out of the potentia of the future, although, as we will see, this experience is also feeling a directional “lure”. Stapp puts it this way, ‘In quantum theory the purely physically described aspects are mere potentialities for real events to occur.’ (Stapp 2011: 136 – emphasis in original). 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, perhaps even more curiously, by what Stapp calls ‘process 0’ (to which we will return below).

Our task here, then, will be to analyse all these features of reality, both as they relate to each other in detail, and what the implications of them are; also how Browning’s Duke both illuminates and is illuminated by all of these, and how the poem demonstrates the Duke’s ‘deformation’ of them.

First, recalling that this is a synoptic synthesis, a generalising 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 characterisation 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’ which are precisely the “fetishized” replacements of an understanding of the “true” nature of the world, ‘First Reality,’ with a fallacious potentially deformed or deforming one; 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, of course, 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, as we will further see below.

Yet, despite all his rampant materialism, the Duke seems to expect others to be contented with the merely abstract, such as his ‘gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name’ which, we may feel unsurprisingly, the Duchess ranks, with affecting display of her status-transcending nature, ‘With anybody’s gift.’ 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 (we have already encountered the taming of the seahorse) that reinforce our impression of this, and it is clearly Browning’s major focus – even Fra Pandolf’s painting skills, which the Duke knows with horrifying (to us) irony, can “capture” in that ‘pictured countenance,/ the depth and passion of its earnest glance,’ even as they reify the Duchess herself, do so on the Duke’s commission. But I want to go, as it were, back of this overt bullying use of power (and this Duke in this setting – 16th century Ferrara – has virtually complete power over all those around him) and ask why it is that we should be so horrified by this particular character.

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? And 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, being more, as it were, quantum dynamic, both effectively and affectively,  repeatedly practised actions will tend toward positive (in quantum physics the sense of a “yes”, leading to a collapse of the wave function, rather than “no”, in which case “reality/Nature” does not respond and process 1, as it were, and this particular ‘probe’ must be abandoned and the probing process begun again; here I am assuming, as seems very probable, a continuum to, or porosity between, 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 – this is still the “level” of the physical, still a type of cause and effect. Nonetheless “something happens,” a curious and, in the field of the interrelations of human society, in the sense of positive (natural) response to human mindful input leading to potentially negative consequences, precisely the very “human” qualitative, reversal of process 32. Here, of course, 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, we may speculate, has this after all not uncommon effect of the absolute power to ‘probe’ absolutely freely apparently corrupting absolutely come about? 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 also, perhaps, gives him an at least latent sense of responsibility towards them in their otherness, which is, too, their transcendence to the Duke which in itself is an echo or aspect of the transcendent beyond: the 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 which will manifest itself differently in each individual depending on their character and circumstances. It is as if in his life’s trajectory his, as it were, management of his moment(s) of concrescence has by the cumulative effect of past decisions become self-corrupted by his own failure, which here is specifically 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 very alive and delighted with life generally as, describing the Duchess, the Duke tells the emissary, ‘She had/ A heart – how shall I say – too soon made glad.’ The Duke, we remember, 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’ as Browning shows us that the Duke does understand, even as he fails to empathise 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, or only, 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 centre of the poem, has the Duke exemplify the utter immorality of the phaulos3. This is the ultimate communication of the cessation of communication: and 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, or at least a sense of it, 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 – emphasis in original).

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, that is rather the metaxological “room to manoeuvre”, so to speak, that is precisely that which is the guarantor of actual freedom; a freedom that in the human being, and perhaps alone there, attains potentially to the level of 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 behaviour. 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 (and, by extension, unethical behaviour and actions more generally).

Henry Stapp talks about behaviour 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 emphasised, 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/empathy towards, even if he has the ability to understand human relations generally (and he does certainly know how to exercise power, and make language work for him, even as we have seen that he can understand the feelings of those other to himself – such empathy as he is capable of is always kept somehow paradoxically externalised). 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-use, for example his almost-comic denial-as-he-performs-it ‘Even had you skill/In speech – (which I have not) – to make your will quite clear,’ why, nonetheless, 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 the shapes (mentioned above) of Whitehead’s “lure” and Voegelin’s metaxy, especially insofar as this concept accommodates Voegelin’s notion of tension toward the (divine) truth, and thus away from the ‘deformation of reality’ that we feel is being caused by the Duke’s phaulistic behaviour.

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-secular6. 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. Whereas, 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, then, 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 relativise any concept of what “true or false” may correspond with to no more than something like “imagination” for there would seem to be no Truth (with a capital “T” i.e. that which corresponds with something actual in the sense that something must, even if this remains inaccessible to us) that our statements could be ‘a tool for unveiling.’ 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, perhaps in surprising ways, and continuing in the spirit of the generalising method of synopsis and synthesis, they may also help 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, as it were,  micropsychophysical (panexperiential/entangled/interrelated) substrate out of which the apparently material macro world “emerges,” then Stapp’s process 0 that, as he says, ‘must precede von Neumann’s process 1’ (Stapp 2011: 24) must somehow be enabled to utilise 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” (see above) of the real entity (in Whitehead’s sense: if these are not entities then they don’t exist i.e. possess real status) that is/are human-action(s)-and-their-consequences, then it must be an instantaneous release, simultaneously both into and out of, something like Voegelin’s notion of the ‘Depth’ (I will say more about this below) and/or Whitehead’s ‘primordial nature of God,’ which would seem to be the same, or very similar (see also below), in/out of which depth ‘spookily’ instantaneously proceed Nature’s responses, 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 recognisable human type7, is thus an actor in the world (as we all are). 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 behaviour (the poem leaves us in no doubt that the Duke’s monstrous egotism is, or has become, habitual) “activates” the QZE (Quantum Zeno Effect – see above) ‘influencing’ nature’s process 3 responses which become, in this view, 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 that have “caused” them, proceeds to what Whitehead calls the ‘consequent nature of God’ as 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, which is also, in the Jungian sense, a form of “negative” synchronicity, 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’ thus symbolises the ‘overdetermined’ in the sense that it is not a number and yet it is that to which all numbers must be related – see also Note 18 below, especially regarding my comments about Barry Miller’s work) 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’ which is nevertheless a ‘depth beyond articulate experience’9. 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” and my suggestion (in The Spoudaios in Western Literature) is that the “spoudaic spectrum” is also a continuum, and which is a kind of index of the divine tension. 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 or the divine, and it is, as is probably apparent, 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/the divine, which must be related to Whitehead’s (and Plato’s) understanding of God as a persuasive agency. After all, if God could coerce, and was omnipotent, 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 – emphasis in original). 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 amongst Browning’s intentions when he wrote the poem (Browning, of course, leaves this judgement to us).

So, in Griffin’s perspective creation/creativity takes on a most central role10. God has the power to create, and creatures are created too with the power, unoverideable, 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 (God, the divine, or whatever symbol is preferred) both of the world and, perhaps in ways that we can only speak of analogically or apophatically, transcendently beyond it: a dual-aspect monism (see also note 10).  But, in our scenario (which is, nevertheless, paradigmatic) creativity, subject to the (free) will of the Duke11, becomes its negative: extreme destructivity. 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.’  (see also Note 19 below).

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 whilst these may be adequate notions to describe some cases, and some elements of the Duke’s behaviour clinically12, as it were, 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, valorises 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’ presence – which 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’ and to Shelley’s Francisco Cenci, mentioned above. Further, however clever and/or (instrumentally) 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, a basic role for choice, 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, on the other hand, 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’ (the answer to his famous question) 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, or 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 (there are many instances in the poem) 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 habitual14. 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 (or should do!) because the phaulos has, so to speak, descended very far down the spoudaic spectrum, which is, to remind ourselves, also the ‘tension towards the divine’ identified by Voegelin, a ‘measure’, in a case like this, of an individual’s ‘disorder’ as their personal sense of the tension between ‘truth and deformation of reality,’ their inner moral compass (see above), has effectively broken down. 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 perhaps 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 symbolising here, is a bad partner, a bad fellow creator (see below) in and of the World and our metaxic (in-between) situation, in which we have an original godlike freedom of will, but in which we are, nevertheless, not originals of ourselves, not God, or gods, in this World. This is how actions like the Duke’s affect the entire interrelated cosmos, the ‘overdetermined plenitude’ of the origin from the apeirontic depth (see also Note 19) to the divine Good itself15 (the fellow sufferer, the constant companion) that transcends the “mere” passage of time.

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) and 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 defence 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/the divine/the Good, and once again it does not really matter what signifier we select. Browning’s  Duke is an entity (albeit a fictional one, although see note 7, but the type represented by Browning is real enough, as we have seen) 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 317.

However this may be, the degree of egregious evil, this mis-use 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, 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  (although this is a kind of pseudo-power that has nothing to do with the Duke’s socially-consecrated legal power; it is, as we have seen, rather the “power” of the unlimited voracity of the inward-turning ego feeding upon itself and on everyone and everything around it); but if, through our engagement with Browning’s art, we have been horrified by the Duke’s utter immorality18,  if we have perhaps recognised 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, or, if one prefers, divine, elements and the negative elements of the depth19  is present and poised in each of us, and present and poised every time we choose how to act, which is every time we do act.

 

Bibliography

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.

 

Notes

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, emphasis in original). Thus, in this context, we can ignore non-human, and therefore non-communicable (by language), actions. What I am further 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 between “coherent” behaviour and what is called “decoherence” of quantum possibilities to “classical” actual events. (Kauffman 2008: 197 – italics added). 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 (especially) 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.

* We might further speculate to what extent this actualisation 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).

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 available on www.voegelinview.com.

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 –emphasis in original).

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 totalising 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 (as I have explained) 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 behaviour, 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 – see above) which is precisely that which the earlier understanding of the phaulos (and spoudaios), as I have been suggesting above, does provide; and, to that extent, it 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 (we are surely seeing his final act) yet, curiously enough, 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, available at https://voegelinview.com/language-power-reality-truth-1984/.

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 emphasised, perhaps, in Western traditions), which 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, part of a series; but the limit case of speed is zero, i.e. not a speed in terms of acceleration*. Miller points out that, ‘It is crucial to recognise, however, that it is quite impossible for the limit case to be a member of the series of which it is the limit case, for it could be a member of a series of Fs only if it itself were an F, which it cannot be (Miller 2002: 139). Therefore there is an absolutely unbridgeable gap between the definite and bounded and the indefinite and boundless that binds which can only be “reconciled” if lines as boundaries can be seen as ‘negations that allow the affirmative presencing of what is distinguished’ then ‘our understanding of origin, of creation, directs us to a matrix of intelligibility that is far more ontologically rich than the vacancy of the indefinite’ (Desmond 1995: 345). This matrix is what Desmond calls the overdetermined plenitude of the origin, which is THE limit case, that which creates the created which, too, is creative – the world we live in – in its unbounded creativity, the limit simpliciter. This is the metaxy itself, where our ‘probings’ 0-3/0-3 (and beyond?) become part of the onflow of the process of this (our) world. This creativity and openness is a risky venture, it is uncertain and indefinite in that it can never be fully determined by any individual, which can easily manifest itself as a profound fear of an openness seen as a threatening type of dissolution. I suggest that this rather like our Duke: it is his very fear of that which would ultimately resist his control (like the Duchess) that leads in his case to his remorseless will to power (and to overpower the other): his phaulitic monomania: he has made himself a monstrous windowless monad. The opposite approach, as it were, would be that of the spoudaios.

* Zero in this case is a stasis (not necessarily absolute or atomistic as it is in Zeno) rather 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’ (see above) that ‘inextricably connected whole’ and in Desmond’s it the Origin. In each case it is regarded as essential and the essentially other (just to reinforce the point) which nevertheless “grounds” every existent. To deny this essential, perhaps even paradoxical, otherness somehow (precisely how is not definable – this is the other after all) 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. The final irony, and therefore the destructive  futility even for his or herself, of the actions of the phaulos, especially in contrast to the contructive fecundity of the actions of the spoudaios, as Browning’s portrait of the Duke demonstrates, is that because of the inextricably interconnected nature of the universe, that that we would change the nature of becomes in a sense a part of who we are and what defines us: 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. Conlin

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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 the United Kingdom.