Thoughts on Language, Shakespeare and Flickering Man

I recently read Shakespeare’s Henry V, the first Shakespeare I’ve read in many, many years. What a revelation. Everything you need to know about leadership, about war and about cynical, political manipulation is reflected in this work from over 400 years ago and yet, it could have been written yesterday. I was struck by how contemporary and how relevant it was. It opens with the Arch-bishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely locked in discussion about how they have set the king and his court on a path to war and glory in order to distract him from their own interests and a bill to dispossess the church of its wealth. How often do we hear that accusation levelled; that drastic deeds are set in train to draw attention from other things? And then, the play closes with a final Chorus which explains how, for all the victory and glory gone before, all that was gained was lost within a generation. Again, how contemporary.

On Leadership, the Chorus of Act IV says more than a wealth of management texts. The early hours of the morning before the battle and the English Army, far from home, battle-weary and faced with an insurmountable task are huddled beneath the moon awaiting morning and the battle to come. It describes the King, Henry, moving among his men, quietly making his presence known, making eye contact, shining his light upon them so that they felt recognised, revived, felt led and galvanised behind a common purpose and goal. All about leadership in a single page.

O now, who will behold
The royal captain of this ruin’d band
Walking from watch to watch, from tent to tent,
Let him cry ‘Praise and glory on his head!’
For forth he goes and visits all his host.
Bids them good morrow with a modest smile
And calls them brothers, friends and countrymen.
Upon his royal face there is no note
How dread an army hath enrounded him;
Nor doth he dedicate one jot of colour
Unto the weary and all-watched night,
But freshly looks and over-bears attaint
With cheerful semblance and sweet majesty;
That every wretch, pining and pale before,
Beholding him, plucks comfort from his looks:
A largess universal like the sun
His liberal eye doth give to every one,
Thawing cold fear, that mean and gentle all,
Behold, as may unworthiness define,
A little touch of Harry in the night.

For me, though, the impact of the play went beyond lessons on leadership and politics. It re-kindled a love of language, a passion for the power of the carefully chosen word which has been too dormant in my world of jargon, pidgin email and the all-powerful PowerPoint. Two recent articles made me ponder this a bit further. In the first, Nicholas Carr, on Britannica Blog, wrote a piece entitled, "From Contemplative Man to Flickering Man". In this, he describes an inevitable future with the death of Contemplative Man and the rise of Flickering Man who draws his information from a vast breadth of shallow sources "conjuring" as he says, "the world out of continually refreshed arrays of isolate pixels, shadows of shadows". I have to agree with much of what he says; as ever before, but at an ever-increasing rate, technology is changing the world and the way in which we interact with it. As with the printing press, the web broadens and fundamentally changes our access to and our consumption of, information. That we move towards a world of information democracy, towards a cornucopia of sources and opinions – with all the caveat emptor that that implies – is inevitable but I had to take issue with the death of Contemplative Man. Imagine a world with no Einstein, no Shakespeare, no Churchill. Who thinks the "big thinks" in such a world? Does the advance of technology doom us to a Logan’s Run world of shallow pleasures (it has its appeals) and retreating attention span? Will the next generation be incapable of the focused thought required to advance science, to think the big thinks? I can’t see it.

The second article appeared in, the online Wall Street Journal, and was an interview with the creators of PowerPoint software, which has just turned 20 years old. In the piece, Robert Gaskins and Dennis Austin reflect on their creation and the uses to which it is put. They are bemused at the growth of PowerPoint culture, appalled at its misuse in schools, "Now grade-school children turn in book reports via PowerPoint. The men call that an abomination. Children, they emphatically agree, need to think and write in complete paragraphs." They agree wholeheartedly with PowerPoint critic (and data presentation guru), Edward Tufte who accuses the software of elevating "format over content". We are back to big thinks and language; PowerPoint was designed as a sales tool, a means of summarising a denser, richer argument. When was the last time you actually saw that denser, richer argument in print? The fault is not in the technology but in the uses to which it is put.

Perhaps, we could start by re-igniting a passion, or at least a close and intimate acquaintance with, the power of language. Maybe from there, we could move on to the resurrection of Contemplative Man.

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