Predicting the future has become so integral to
the fabric of modern consciousness that few people
feel compelled to question it, and fewer still feel the
need to defend it.
Much has been written about the burden of history, but what happens when the future is the burden, when a person comes into possession of knowledge regarding the future, when s/he knows the outcome of a given event or life? The idea that the future is hidden or occult knowledge should not be dismissed without some investigation and interrogation. This may not seem like a question for philosophical pursuit; belief in predictions is generally seen as superstitious, medieval, or New Age-ish. But why? we make predictions all the time in many different fields: meteorology, physics, politics, economics, sociology, and medicine. In the 1960s, the assumption among many was that the near future held in its grasp global nuclear war; in 1992, there was supposed to be a major earthquake on the New Madrid fault; and there have been repeated predictions for the end of the world in the last fifteen years as well as new predictions for the turn of the millennium. Regardless of the accuracy of the prophecy, the prediction has the effect on many people of being "truth." Whether from God, science, or government, the information forces the individual to take measures in the present in an attempt to prevent, alter, or subvert, or in positive cases permit, the event to occur.
As the amount of power that the individual has increases, the effectible consequences are likewise generally increased. While a person living in the United States in the 1960s could move or build a bomb shelter in the hopes that s/he might survive, the President had to decide which choice/action would prevent nuclear war and which would cause it. The greater the power of the person, the greater the likelihood s/he can affect the future. What happens at this level of power is that the individual is potentially placed in a precarious state of indeterminacy. A person with this much power who knows a version of the future must maneuver through a present, a present which cannot be separated from its accompanying future. The future seeps in and affects the present, even if that future does not occur in our experience of time.
What I intend to do is examine the role of the future, most notably the knowledge of the future, in the present. By exploring the role and construction of time in both philosophy and physics, I will present a reading of foreknowledge and its influence on the present in two Renaissance texts, Shakespeare's Macbeth and Milton's Samson Agonistes.
Is Time A Construct?:
Obviously, yes. Time is the imposition of units of measurement upon the movement of objects within space. Time exists only within the universe yet does follow the same rules in all places within it (singularities [black holes] are one example of places in the universe where time and the laws of physics are not believed to hold true; another point is the first few seconds after the big bang). More important and interesting, however, is the question, "is time a construct of language?" If knowledge, identity, gender, race, and sexuality can be constructs of language, why not time?
The most predictable argument against time being a construct is that time existed before both language and people. In fact, time existed for more than ten billion years before the evolution of humans. Stars and galaxies formed and collapsed before the first human ever spoke or wrote. If time is a dimension of the universe, then it pre-existed language. Therefore, it would follow that time is not a construct of language.
Not exactly. To begin with, we should examine the conventional divisions of time: past, present, and future. As physicists are able to "see" further and further into the past, they begin to fill in the gaps of cosmic history, creating the veneer of a "definitive" history of the universe; the most recent data are supposedly from a mere 300,000 years after the big bang, our universe's "baby pictures." But does this really prove that time exists, or does it merely indicate that we have constructed a knowledge to describe, define, and organize change? And even if the past does exist outside language, any attempt to describe it forces the individual to return to the symbolic order, either of language or mathematics. One example of the problems of narrating the past is History, which once was considered the objective plotting of past events, but is now recognized by many as a knowledge created by certain hegemonic forces for primarily political ends. Can cosmic history be construed any differently? Is it free from the contamination of human consciousness?
Ludwig Wittgenstein raises an interesting problem in On Certainty regarding the ability of the individual to know anything.
It would strike me as ridiculous to want to doubt the existence of Napoleon; but if
someone doubted the existence of the earth 150 years ago, perhaps I should be more willing to listen, for now he is doubting our whole system of evidence. It does not strike me as if this system were more certain than a certainty within it. (§185)
How do we know that the earth did not exist one hundred fifty years ago? Ultimately, we are forced, according to Wittgenstein, to believe certain things and to convince ourselves that they are true. What he seems to posit is not that the earth is less than one hundred fifty years old, but that we should evaluate how it is that we come to say we know things and how it is that we prove them. In a sense, Wittgenstein prefigures Michel Foucault and his analyses on the historical construction and deployment of knowledge and power in asylums, prisons, and even sexuality. In his discussion of the Panopticon, Foucault describes how the prison is designed to enable the warden or guard to be able to observe both his inmates and the guards working beneath him without having to be constantly present; the mere idea that he could be watching is sufficient to create a self-monitoring inmate or employee. "Thanks to its mechanisms of observation, it gains in efficiency and in the ability to penetrate into men's behaviour; knowledge follows the advances of power, discovering new objects of knowledge over all the surfaces on which power is exercised" (204). Knowledge, in this instance, is clearly a tool of power; just given Foucault's investigations into the creation of knowledge and power, can we even imagine a knowledge which is value free or which is not connected to power? Therefore any knowledge of the past, even if we accept that it exists outside of language, is suspect by its inscription into language (even mathematics should be suspect). Thus, what we know of the past, as well as many ideas which come to us from the past, are constructed by/in language.
Furthermore, if we look at Jacques Derrida's reading of Heidegger's Dasein, we can see that "Being" is constructed in time. In Being and Time, Martin Heidegger introduces his definition of Dasein, which is translated as "Being," an existential individual who is conscious of his/her self, surroundings, etc. As Derrida begins to deconstruct Dasein, it becomes quite clear that "Being" is "being-in-time." "Being" is as much being human is it is human being. If one is to be, then one is to act, to live, to be in motion; if one is to be, then one is to be in time. Derrida goes so far, in Aporias, as to interpret Dasein as "being-toward-death," "being-destined-to-death," "being-to-death," "being-tending-toward-death," and "being-tending-up-to-death" (1993: 39). In these readings of Dasein, we see that the individual is placed securely within time. In fact, time becomes a burden if it is death which makes the individual conscious of his/her being. It is one thing to say that all humans know that they will die; it is quite another to say that "Being" (Dasein) is dependent upon the individual's consciousness that he/she is proceeding towards death. "Being" is therefore predicated by one's knowledge of the future, by one's knowledge that one is heading toward death.
A Primer On Cosmic Temporality:
While Philosophy provides a better framework for analyzing the past, physics seems to be better suited to address the present and the future. While the future may first appear to be the realm of science fiction or religion, ever since Albert Einstein proposed his theory of relativity, the future has moved into the realm of mainstream astrophysics. Once time becomes variable and is localized in space, all absolutes disappear; past, present, and future become terms that only have significance for a given point in space. Roger Penrose, a noted contemporary British mathematician, writes that, "According to relativity, there is not really such a thing as the `now' at all. The closest that we get to such a concept is an observer's `simultaneous space' in space-time . . . The `now' according to one observer would not agree with that for another" (303). According to Penrose, the present/`now' does not really exist; the present only exists for the individual at the instance of the experience. The event will be past when another sees or experiences it; it is future for the other.
I have said earlier that physics is better suited to the future than the past; that is an arbitrary, but rhetorical, decision. Stephen Hawking begins his best-selling A Brief History of Time with a few questions: "Where did the universe come from, and where is it going? Did the universe have a beginning, and if so, what happened before then? What is the nature of time? Will it ever come to an end?" (1988: 1). These questions situate the pursuits of physics in both directions, past and future, but is there fundamentally a difference between the two? Is what existed before the universe began any different that what will exist after the universe ends? There is no current consensus answer to any one of these questions; speculation and hypothesis fuel and fill the debates. The reason I place the future in the realm of physics is that physics has come to some understanding of time and its direction:
the laws of science do not distinguish between forward and backward directions
of time. However, there are at least three arrows of time that do distinguish the past from the future. They are the thermodynamic arrow, the direction of time in which disorder increases; the psychological arrow, the direction of time in which we remember the past and not the future; and the cosmological arrow, the direction of time in which the universe expands rather than contracts. (1988: 152)
Hawking has provided a catalog of arrows of time, and yet this very knowledge exposes the tenuous nature of time. Eventually, there should become a point where the universe reaches a maximum state of disorder; unless the universe expands forever, which is not yet determinable, the universe will begin to contract and collapse in upon itself. Then, in what direction will time be headed? The more curious arrow is the psychological: the direction of time in which we remember the past and not the future. This definition is a clever tautology, and because it is tautological, it attempts to preclude any opposition. But what is déjà vu, what are dreams that come true, what is prophecy that comes to pass? The pragmatic mind would say that the mind thinks it recognizes certain things it has not encountered before, that they are coincidences, that according to probability, a given number of dreams or predictions will come true. The pragmatic mind would say that because the definition of the psychological arrow of time is that one does not remember the future, one cannot remember the future. If, however, these dreams or predictions represent wrinkles or lapses in the fabric of time, then the arrow of time may need to be re-evaluated.
In Hawking's more recent book, Black Holes and Baby Universes, he becomes more philosophic on the issue of determinism versus free will. Hawking begins with the assumption that the universe follows strict scientific law (what he says some people call God):
The initial configuration of the universe may have been chosen by God, or it may itself have been determined by the laws of science. In either case, it would seem that everything in the universe would then be determined by evolution according to the laws of science, so it is difficult to see how we can be masters of our fate. (1993: 128)
Hawking cannot refute this idea, but he states that any theory of the universe would have to be either so simplified it could not predict the minutia (such as who would be on the cover of a given magazine) or so complex that it would take forever to solve for a specific occurrence. When the earth was still the center of the universe, and when God was still in control, it was easy to believe that the stars could spell one's destiny because everything was created for us; physics still tells us that our future is inscribed in nature, but now the difference is that the text is far more complex.
On the cosmic scale, physics can tell us that the universe will either collapse onto itself, back into a point and disappear, or it will continue to expand infinitely. Whatever happens will be meaningless to humans because we as a species will have long died out, and our sun will have burned out. Time may still exist, but no one will be here to record it and there will be no psychological arrow of time left. Events will happen unnoticed. Time may still exist, but there will be no one around to give it meaning. Physics has an advantage over other disciplines when it comes to the future; since it deals in cosmic time, it can dismiss the human element. Without humans, time does not have meaning. How much will the public worry if science were to announce that in twenty billion years the universe was going to collapse back onto itself? If anything, such knowledge is reassuring; it shifts the individual from thinking about the threats in the near future to an abstract idea about the entire universe collapsing onto the space no larger than the period at the end of this sentence.
Biblical Precedents On Tomorrow:
The idea of knowing the future is not unprecedented in Western culture, especially given the privilege of Judeo-Christian thought within it. One could argue that the Bible, probably the central text in Western thought, is structured around the idea of there being a predictable future, that God can see across time and inform people of the future whenever he so chooses: for example, the New Testament represents the fulfilling of much of the prophecy of the Old Testament. According to the first two chapters of the gospel account of Matthew, the coming of Christ fulfilled prophecies of four prophets: Isaiah--"The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel" (Is 7:14/Matt 1:23); Micah--". . . for out of you [Bethlehem] will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel" (Mic 5:2/Matt 2:6); Hosea--"Out of Egypt I called my son" (Hos 11:1/Matt 2:15); Jeremiah--"A voice is heard in Ramah . . . Rachel weeping for her children . . . because they are no more" (Jer 31:15/Matt 2:18). Regardless how well the reader believes Christ to fulfill the prophecies, the text posits that Christ accurately satisfies each prophecy. What we are instructed to believe is that God exists outside of time and thus can see past, present, and future simultaneously; therefore, if God so desires, he may choose to relate to some individual events which have not yet occurred.
Not only is Christ claimed to be the fulfillment of prophecy, Christ also makes prophecies of his own, continuing the cycle of belief in a knowable, although secret, future. In the twenty-fourth chapter of Matthew, Christ lists numerous signs of the times--wars and rumors of wars, famines, and earthquakes--and then states despite all these clues, no one will know when it will happen: "`No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father' . . . `So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him'" (Matthew 24: 36, 44). Mark records a similar account of the speech: "`No one knows about the day of hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come' . . . `What I say to you, I say to everyone: "Watch"'" (Mark 13: 32-33, 37). Luke also cites Christ as saying, "`You also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him'" (Luke 12: 40). In these passage, we are told that certain vague and common events will occur before Christ returns; however, with each version of the prophecy comes a statement saying that one cannot know when it will occur. The secret is written into the prophecy. What we are allowed in a general knowledge of the future, certain event will happen, but we are not given the specifics; we are forced to read the future into the present. Just as the apostles believed they were living in the "last days," so also did people around the turn of the first millennium, around the year 1666, and now also at the turn of the second millennium.
What makes these prophecies secret is not that we do not know the future, but that the future we do know is vague. I would assume that most people know that wars and rumors of wars will always exist (so long as there are humans), that the plates of the earth will continually shift and create earthquakes, and that the weather cycles will continue and cause famines in certain areas. If there is a burden in this future, it is that, for the future to be "apocalyptic," then it must be more terrible than the wars, earthquakes, and famines that we "normally" experience. Thus, the fear or burden which the future possesses is that things will get worse: wars will be worse than the atrocities of WWII or Bosnia; earthquakes will be worse than the ones in Anchorage, San Francisco, or Mexico City; famines will be worse than the ones in Somalia, Ethiopia, or the Sudan. Yet none of the literal predictions should surprise us; as technology and the population both increase, so will the scope of the disaster.
As for the metaphoric prophesies such as are found in the books of Ezekiel, Daniel, and Revelations, they are so open to interpretation that they can be applied to a nearly limitless number of events. The future becomes the property of those who can read or interpret the texts. What astrology claims the stars tell us, the Biblical interpreters claim the Bible tells us. In these scenarios, the future is a text constructed by certain individuals to convince followers that the plot still exists and they have not been forgotten or to convert non-followers by convincing them that there is a plot to the universe.
The Example Of Paul De Man:
It may seem awkward to discuss a man whose past is so problematic in an essay on the future, but the two are inseparable and definite parallels can be made between the two. If time (t), as both Penrose and Hawking suggest, could go in the opposite direction (-t) and not violate any of the laws of physics, and if the future is, as some in physics and religion suggest, determined, then examining the past should be a valid approach to examining the future.
The reason for choosing Paul de Man's experience with the burden of history, as opposed to a Mexican or Native American writer who has to deal with the question of European conquest and colonization or a Jewish writer who has to deal with the Holocaust, is that de Man made it a specific theoretical issue to avoid personal responsibility and complicity. In a discussion of Nietzsche and Baudelaire, de Man discusses the advantage of having a perception that is not tarnished by the past:
The human figures that epitomize modernity are defined by experiences such as
childhood or convalescence, a freshness of perception that results from a slate wiped clear, from the absence of a past that has not yet had time to tarnish the immediacy of perception (although what is thus freshly discovered prefigures the end of this very freshness), of a past that, in the case of convalescence, is so threatening that it has to be forgotten. (157)
Clearly, the past exerts an influence into the present, and some things probably would be best if they were forgotten, such as journalism that was supportive of the German Nationalist Socialist Party. The past may represent a burden upon or a tarnishing of the present, but if one of the differences between the past and the future is that the past can be remembered, then can it also not be forgotten? However, if we assume that the future cannot be remembered, then how could we forget it?
The future exists in the present and exerts its influence precisely because it cannot be forgotten, because it cannot be remembered with certainty. We may say that we know something will happen, but can we really know exactly how or when such an event will take place? I suggest that the anxiety of the future occurs in the present because we know something will happen but the "how" and the "when" introduce variables into the scheme which muddle the picture and lead to stasis. If the variables are great enough, the individual can become so overwhelmed in indeterminacy that the future itself determines the present stagnation and prevents itself from ever being. Therefore, there are times where the future as well as the time must be forgotten if the individual is to be able to cope well and have a fresh perception in the present.
Personal Anecdotes On The Future, Or (A Secret):
Growing up in a fundamentalist Christian household, I feel a certain authority on how the future imposes itself as a burden on the present. Some of my earliest memories are stories and images of end times, tribulations, and signs of the times. Where de Man says that the modern individual is characterized by a fresh perception which is free of the tarnish of the past, I would add that the future may be an even greater hindrance. Not only does one have to be responsible for past actions, now the individual is confronted with a responsibility for events and consequences which have not yet occurred.
I have two very clear memories from my early childhood: the first is being thrown out of bed during the 1972 Sylmar earthquake; the second is being curled up on the floor of my parents' car, trying desperately not to listen, as my grandfather is telling my mother about how impending the end times are. For me, as well others who grew up in excessively religious households, it was the future, not the past, which was the burden. And it was a secret, secret because if one admitted to being afraid of the second coming of Christ, then one must not have been a good enough Christian. The future was public, the fear was private, and there was nothing I could do about it because I was consumed by the construction of its narrative and could not see that it was constructed to keep me obedient, faithful, and in church.
In his 1992 seminar lecture, "The Secret: Ça ne se dit pas," at the University of California, Irvine, Derrida describes the secret as information which occurs outside of narrative, and yet is also part of the narrative, resonating at its beginnings. In this sense, the secret is quite similar to foreknowledge or prophecy: if we assume that knowledge of the future comes from a source outside of our standard narrative, then any experience with prophecy would be the encounter in our narrative of an extra- or super-narrative. Further, knowledge of the future is the secret of the universe; often we think we know the future, but like Wittgenstein says, can we really know anything? We may be right sometimes, but we are also wrong sometimes; while we may be certain, we cannot really say that we know X will happen any more than we can know X will not happen.
At moments when a future narrative interacts with the present, there is a resonance at the beginning of the interacted narrative. The future narrative provides evidence of a plot; it confirms that one is part of or lives within a constructed plot: is this not one of the functions of religion and science: to show direction, purpose, and reason. The beginning can therefore be a beginning if there is shown to be an end. One might say that the entire narrative is reconfigured because a future/end has been introduced. Again, the future does not have to be "true" to create such an effect; it merely has to be plausible or likely. It is here where the "authority" of the voice makes what may only be "possible" into what "will" happen. Example: if I say that Christ will return in two weeks and destroy the world, few, if any, will believe me; if Hal Lindsey (author of The Late Great Planet Earth) says the world will end in two weeks, millions will buy his book, despite the fact that all his previous predictions for Christ's return have been wrong.
Macbeth is given the opportunity to see/create his future. The question we must ask about the role of foreknowledge is this play is, does the language of the weird sisters create Macbeth's reality, or does his reality exist apart from the prophecy?
In the third scene of the first act, the weird sisters reveal their rather arbitrary sense of justice: a woman denies one a chestnut so the witch seeks to deny the woman her husband. Directly after deciding that, they encounter Macbeth and Banquo, hail Macbeth as Thane of Glamis (his title) as well as Thane of Cawdor, and tell him he will be king. Early on in the play, we see Macbeth in the situation where he is given information regarding his future; he is told he will be Thane of Cawdor and eventually will become king. Shortly thereafter, he is told by Ross that he has been named Thane of Cawdor. Macbeth is placed in the position where he knows that one half of the prediction has already come to pass; can he assume that, if half of the prediction is true, then the whole prediction is true? Following the news that he has been named Thane of Cawdor, he makes an aside which uses the metaphor of the play: "Two truths are told / As happy prologues to the swelling act / Of the imperial theme" (I.3.127-129). He is alluding to the weird sisters' prophecies as well as to the play itself; while I do not believe that Macbeth could be conscious that he is a character within a play like one of Pirandello's characters might, I do think that this metaphor exposes the realization on Macbeth's part that his narrative has been intersected by a super-narrative. Macbeth knows that something is going on outside or above his understanding; what he does not know is whether it is supernatural, authorial, or coincidental.
One of the irresolvable questions of the play is, does the knowledge of the prediction create the fulfillment of the action? By act I.4, Macbeth reveals that he may have had intentions of regicide or at least becoming king before he ever heard the witches' proclamations: "Stars, hide your fires; / Let not light see my black and deep desires" (I.4.50-51). It would seem unlikely that Macbeth could have deep desires about becoming king in such a short time as has elapsed since he was told he would be king. A deep desire suggests a desire that has existed for some time, festering in the soul and taking over the entire self. If this is so, then the witches' prediction does not unveil the future to Macbeth, but instead it reveals to him that his secret/future is no longer secret knowledge. In one sense, the prediction is a call to action because, as any intelligent criminal knows, the more people who know what is happening, the more likely one is to get caught.
The weird sisters are not the only ones who can read Macbeth. Banquo, on two occasions, notes that Macbeth has been struck by some revelation: "Good sir, why do you start, and seem to fear, / Things that do sound so fair?" (I.3.51-52), and "Look how our partner's rapt" (I.3.142). The first quotation follows the third sister's proclamation that Macbeth is to be king; the second follows an aside of Macbeth's in which he is pondering murder. While Banquo is not so adept a reader as the weird sisters or Lady Macbeth, he clearly can tell something is going on within Macbeth's psyche, and if he puts the prediction with the rapture, then he too should know what the topic of Macbeth's thoughts is. Although the standard reading of Banquo's murder is to pre-empt the prophecy that Banquo's heirs will be kings (this is suggested by the fact that Fleance is also to be killed), Macbeth may have ulterior motives. Banquo is the other one who heard the prophecy, and he has seen Macbeth's rapture at the proclamation. Even if Banquo is not bright enough to put the two together, Macbeth should eliminate him to maintain the integrity of the secret. The more people who understand that the narrative of the future intersects with the present, the more danger the future ultimately faces as there are more who could interfere with the time line; if Macbeth can keep the knowledge of the future to himself and his wife, then he can maintain power invested in that knowledge.
Lady Macbeth is the other person who can read Macbeth well. She warns him to be careful, because to her, he is transparent. "Your face, my thane, is as a book where men / May read strange matters. To beguile the time, / Look like the time; bear welcome in your eye, / Your hand, your tongue. Look like th' innocent flower, / But be the serpent under `t" (I.5.62-66). Lady Macbeth clearly understands the ability of Macbeth to be read, but instead of suggesting the murder of Banquo or another, she tells Macbeth to alter the text, to encourage misreadings. Unfortunately, Macbeth is not that good of a reader, so that he cannot make a good author. He forces his reading of the witches onto the narrative; it is up to him to actively fulfill the future. When they tell him later about "none of woman born / shall harm Macbeth" and "Macbeth shall never vanquish'd be until / Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill / Shall come against him" (VI.1.80-81, 92-94), he can only read the texts literally, and thus he misreads them. Metaphor is a common trope of prophecy, and yet Macbeth seeks to take the prediction literally in order to calm his fears of being dethroned.
Besides being a poor reader, Macbeth is also a selective reader. Both of the predictions regarding himself have come true, and yet he feels that he can prevent Banquo's from coming to pass. This suggests that Macbeth does not understand the text he is reading, or he thinks he can rewrite it. If the future is determined, which it would have to be in order to read it, then persons within the present could not manipulate events in the present in order to alter the future. One might say that Macbeth violates the rules by attempting to change the future; the future is always already. Admittedly Derrida never has taken this term into the future, and it does seem to be an oxymoron in this context, but it does fit (in another essay, "How To Avoid Speaking," Derrida does, however, mention that "it is necessary . . . that in the future there will have been a trace" [Derrida 1989: 12]); if always already indicates that there is no originary, then it must also indicate that there is no ultimate or end, that it is already always. Macbeth's attempt to alter the future is an attempt to escape his narrative; he is constructed within his "present" narrative, but once he sees the super-narrative, he attempts to move onto it. It is as if he wishes to become a character outside of his play, but does not understand the impossibility of it; he cannot become the playwright.
One could say that Macbeth's downfall is that his knowledge of the future (of Banquo's line) became his burden. If he did not know that Banquo's line would succeed him, or when/how he would die, he most likely would not have acted as he did. Macbeth is not comfortable as king because he knows his reign is tenuous; this is made evident by the fact that he returns to the weird sisters to find out further information about his future. Each item of information becomes knowledge which looms over his head, saturating his present and creating at one moment false security and bravado--"Let them fly all! / Till Birnam wood remove to Dunsinane, / I cannot taint with fear" (V.3.1-3)--and at another a fear that his reign will be short--"Thou art too like the spirit of Banquo. Down! / Thy crown does sear mine eyeballs" (IV.1.112-13).
Macbeth transgresses against the future when he attempts to manipulate it, either when he kills the king, if one does not believe that he would have otherwise, or when he attempts to end Banquo's line. Macbeth is mortal and thus does not have control over his narrative, and yet he constantly acts as if he is the one who is directing events, as if he is writing his life. When he sees that he cannot control his narrative (when Fleance escapes), Macbeth determines to find out more information about his future narrative from the weird sisters. The information he finds out seems to set him up for his demise; it is as if the sisters know he will misread the information and thus allow himself to be killed by Macduff. The future maintains its integrity by ultimately eliminating those men who have knowledge of it; those who have heard their futures disappear as the future is played out. The narratives of present and future no longer intersect.
Just as Macbeth had been given a glimpse of his future, so also has Samson. Unlike Macbeth, however, we do not trace Samson throughout the time of his prophecy; we see him at the end of the prophecy with him regretting that he had ever been given the knowledge of his future. We also hear from him that he has used, in a way not unlike Macbeth, the knowledge of his future as justification for his actions. In this drama, the importance seems to be less the impact of the future on the actions of the present and more on the burden and responsibility of knowing one is supposed to do great deeds.
Early in the drama, Samson indicates some displeasure, if not anger, at the responsibility of having to deliver Israel from the Philistines. "Why was my breeding order'd and prescrib'd / As of a person separate to God, / Design'd for great exploits" (30-32). At the present, Samson is in a prison contemplating and regretting the future that was "from Heaven foretold / Twice by an Angel . . . / [to] both my parents" (23-25). Imagine the pressure to succeed: twice an angel from God has told his parents that he will deliver the Israelites from the Philistines. He is told what he will eventually do, but not how he will do it. From his very beginning, Samson knows his future and seems to understand the burden that it poses for him: it is up to him to deliver his people. Every move he makes may or may not alter his future; if he marries a Philistine, will it enable him to fulfill God's prophecy, or will it hinder him? He is a hero who has been given the power but not necessarily given the understanding to use that power.
Not having that understanding leads Samson to use his future as a justification for his present actions, or he may sincerely believe that he is "doing God's will." The first clear example of his manipulation of his destiny is when he marries Timna:
The first I saw at Timna, and she pleas'd
Mee, not my Parents, that I sought to wed,
The daughter of an Infidel: they knew not
That what I motion'd was of God; I knew
From intimate impulse, and therefore urg'd
The Marriage on; that by occasion hence
I might begin Israel's Deliverance,
The work to which I was divinely call'd. (219-26)
Despite the fact that Samson mentions that "She prov[ed] false" (227), he tells us that his parents did not know this plan was from God; this means that the plan was from God. The basis for this knowledge is his intimate impulse; Samson is so caught up in his future heroics that every feeling in his present becomes part of his plot to slay the Philistines. Samson's problem is that now everything is part of the narrative of his future. As soon as he finishes saying that Timna proved false, he mentions that "the next I took to Wife / . . . / Was in the Vale of Sorec, Dalila, / . . . / I thought it lawful from my former act, / And the same end; still watching to oppress / Israel's oppressors" (227-33). Samson does not learn from his errors; he is so convinced that he is reading the super-narrative that he cannot see the problems in his present narrative. His investment in the divine sanction of his plot provides validation for all his actions; he knows that he has been set apart as a judge/savior of his people and cannot accept the possibility that he could in any way not fulfill it.
It is because of the prophecy, I will argue, that he finally reveals to Dalila his secret. After she cuts his hair, according to the Biblical account, "[h]e awoke from his sleep and thought, `I'll go out as before and shake myself free'" (Judges 16:20). He acts as if his power is not invested in his Nazarite code or in his hair, but is in his secret destiny. What Samson does not realize that Macbeth does, is the importance of keeping the secret. Manoa tells him that he has "violate[d] the sacred trust of silence / Deposited within thee" (428-29). Samson makes public his super-narrative; he lets Dalila know that his future resides in his hair. Samson finally realizes the importance of keeping the secret when he, like Dante, damns the ones who are "traitors" to their friends:
. . . To have reveal'd
Secrets of men, the secrets of a friend,
How heinous had the fact been, how deserving
Contempt, and scorn of all, to be excluded
All friendship, and avoided as a blab,
The mark of fool set on his front? But I
God's counsel have not kept, his holy secret
Presumptuously have publish'd, impiously,
Weakly at least, and shamefully. (491-99)
At this point, Samson understands the great sin in revealing the secret knowledge: it is a betrayal of the confidence of the person who told him. In this case, it is the secret of God and his destiny that is betrayed, and in it potentially the future of God's chosen people.
For Samson, the secret represents a special problem: it contradicts a strong desire in him to be famous. In one passage, directly after Samson mentions that he betrayed God's secret, he asks what the people are saying about him:
. . . and for a word, a tear,
Fool, have divulg'd the secret gift of God
To a deceitful Woman: tell me, Friends,
Am I not sung and proverb'd for a Fool
In every street; do they not say, "How well
Are come upon him his deserts?" (200-05)
Admittedly, this represents an infamy, but it does demonstrate a concern on Samson's part regarding how he is publicly acknowledged. Later, we see how important fame was/is in Samson's life:
Of birth from Heav'n foretold and high exploits,
Full of divine instinct, after some proof
Of acts indeed heroic, far beyond
The Sons of Anak, famous now and blaz'd,
Fearless of danger, like a petty God
I walk'd about admir'd of all and dreaded
On hostile ground, none daring my affront. (525-31)
Samson's pride is extremely visible in this passage; we can see an individual who is inflamed with such self-interest that he walks around, admired and feared, and likens himself to a petty god. Inherent in being feared and admired is being known, being famous. However, it is this affinity for fame, for exposure, which runs contradictory to his ability to keep his secret. How can everybody truly admire and fear him if they do not know everything about him? If he tells his secret, will not people fear him more, admire him more? Does not the fact that he is destined to do even greater things make him more attractive? Each of these questions represents some aspect of the particular difficulty Samson experiences in trying to integrate a desire for fame with a secret power. Even Samson's last speech reveals the traces of his desire for fame and exposure: "`I mean to show you of my strength, yet greater; / As with amaze shall strike all who behold'" (1644-45). Samson does not have to reveal his secret in this final act, and in this act he fulfills the original prophecy. Again, the narrative structure has righted itself: the future is secure and has returned to its original form. There is no longer a threat.
Like with Macbeth, the question "does the knowledge of the future create the future?" cannot be answered definitively; in Samson Agonistes, one might even ask, "does knowledge of the future alter the future?" Samson is presented with the knowledge that he is to deliver his people from the control of the Philistines; however, because he has that knowledge, he nearly prevents that from happening. One could say that a deus ex machina is required at the end for the future to be salvaged; or, one could say that the only way God could have Samson destroy so many Philistines is to have Samson appear weak as a prisoner so that he could surprise them and destroy the entire temple and its visitors.
So where do we as readers fit on these time lines? We exist in Shakespeare's and Milton's futures. We exist in an ephemeral present. We exist in the future we write and speak. We may not feel that we have the same exposure to our futures as Macbeth or Samson, but we still do live in a world which is as much concerned with its future as it is with its past. Are we told that we will smite our enemies or will become king? Probably not. Are we told that our world will die out if we destroy the ozone layer or the tropical forests? Are we told that our country will go bankrupt if we do not begin to show fiscal responsibility? Are we told that our planet will only be able to sustain human life on the earth for another 100,000 years? Each of these is a future. Whether we have the ability to change them is not clear; if the future is determined, then it is possible that we are already doomed; if free will exists, then we might have a chance. Since I have never had the experience of having my super-narrative intersect my present narrative, I can only move within the present, but that does not mean that my futures are not constantly here. I move within time and hopefully, like Samson, will find a plot at the end of my narrative.
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