|Apr/May 2014 Spotlight|
When one is entered into old age, one wakes in the morning and sighs, "I kiss the day!"—as a departed friend then in his early 80's remarked as we strolled around the block. He'd just come from visiting an ancient uncle in hospital, a roué and gambler like Nicky his older brother, who'd left him with a motto: "Boost a booster! Knock a knocker! Fuck a sucker!" That could have served for his epitaph, a legacy recalling a 20th century life evading hit men from Broadway to Miami to Chicago, from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. As an afterthought he asked Bill, did he recall having met one of his track pals whose sobriquet was The Stooper? "Well, he's gone, and I'm going, too." How come, Stooper? It seems that character had made his living from the track, traveling from meet to meet, patrolling grounds adjoining course railings, walking the box seat rows, and hanging about the betting windows. He'd carried a broomstick with a nail embedded at one end that he used to spear winning tickets discarded by disappointed bettors. And a good life it had been for him!
I'm going on 84 now. That deathbed counsel drifts on the sea of memories remaining to me, my friend Bill aged 86 having keeled over one morning several years ago as he stood waiting at the counter of a Brentwood patisserie to buy pastries for tea-time guests. It returns suddenly like a forgotten parlay ticket scribbled with something that now seems to read like an insight into Shakespeare's last play. Glimpses of insight are a common-enough experience in one's latter years; they gleam amidst the flotsam accreted during a lifetime of confusion, action, as the many-too-many fardels of belief that once burdened us drop off like dead limpets and float away. Thoreau cried, "Simplify! Simplify!" Whether or not one attempts to simplify the works and days of a lifetime, simplification comes of itself to scour more or less clean the ruined barrel of one's "identity." Emotions, opinions, beliefs, ingrained dogma, all drift like tattered, tropical fish through the void that fills it with a sort of new clarity. Altered now are perspectives that decade after decade framed one's views. Truly, when one was a child, one thought as a child. Later, after having secured what's called "man's estate," I wrote these lines to epitomize its "existential" situation:
It was an endless parade,
and they jammed Sixth Avenue:
Armies, Navies and Airplanes,
Clerks, Workers and Bosses,
Actors, Dancers, Deep Thinkers...
I knew you waited for me,
but I couldn't cross the street.
—from "The Poets," Collected Poems, #7
There followed an epoch during which one mourns its passing—this latest era brought surprising flashes that revealed simplicity's features. They come not like the fractured quarks that nestle in the heart of the heart of an atom, but rather run across a field of immateriality. Conceive labile essences like those recently-observed Higgs bosons that trace the presence of the substrate within the infinitely small construction of a quark's quantum by leaving tracks on a laboratory screen to mark scarcely measurable instants of space's/time or time's/space and are thought of as the foundation of matter itself. Indeed an extravagant comparison: Things that are yet are not. If such things do exist, they tell us our "universe" is... and is not—and both at once. Granted our universe is—is it all there is?
In the Epilogue to The Tempest, Prospero intones Shakespeare's elegiac prophecy. It presents what today's physics would describe:
...the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself—
Yea, all which it inherit—shall dissolve,
And like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.
Spoken to Prospero's daughter Miranda and the play's bevy of chastened characters, were these words intended also for us? Like ourselves, the audience of the Globe Theater were persons who daily tended to the world's business. Did they hear it? And do we who lie in darkness hoping to wake, rise, and "kiss the day," ponder what truth may wait in what Prospero says? Can we sense what flickers like some will-o'-the-wisp through the drama, like the tutelary Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream who misled lovers, blinded Oberon's Queen Titania, and set a jackass's braying head on Bottom the Weaver—or Ariel who moves not only people but the very sky and sea?
Strip from The Tempest plot-line and action, tropes familiar from make-believe, fairytale worlds. Consider its characters existentially, so to say, not as if they were performing assigned roles, but persons like ourselves acting in front of the scrim of "this insubstantial pageant" we think of as our world. Shakespeare's "melancholy Jacques" a decade earlier had spoken words presaging this Epilogue in As You Like It: "All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts." Today it might be asked if the thought of oneself playing at this or that persona does not provoke a sensation of falling down a well deeper than Alice's rabbit hole, the bottomless well of our existence. When Alice finds her footing down that hole, who should dash by her but a White Rabbit worrying at his watch, regretting his tardiness, fearing himself late for some appointed meeting. Was it that same appointment we go to, the hour that must shroud us in the winding sheet of nothingness? Was Carroll's tale meant just for children?
Prospero, Duke of Milan, ruled benignly until supplanted by his younger brother and exiled to a desert island. One could suppose it was not tragic to have outlived his reign years. Think of that usurping brother as the next generation. There in isolation Prospero studies, practices, controls power that rules the heavens and earth, and raises Miranda intending to restore her to her proper inheritance. Native to that isle and entrained by magic, his familiar spirit Ariel loyally serves him. Caliban, a brutish creature sprung from the loins of a sorceress that kept him trapped in a tree's split trunk, he was adopted, taught to speak, and conscripted to menial labor. One cares for him with whatever affection a supernatural being can hold for an earthly creature; the other labors grudgingly, stuffed to bursting with hatred for his enslavement.
Again, thinking existentially of Prospero, one might imagine him as one's self, a lone being condemned to live out years surrounded by the Ocean Sea, as it was known then. He is not discontent. Like hermits of old, he contemplates that desert isle, purposing to regain his former rule in a busy world. Like us he knows that challenge and difficulty come from others, and as for his, he plans to settle old scores with them. As though one's adversaries are what they once were! As though yesterday's self is today's! (Heraclitus puts it that the man who leaves his house in the morning and crosses a stream—Time's?—is not the same as the one that returns at night. When we say nobody steps into the same river twice we have it the wrong way round.) He dispatches Ariel to stir up a tempest that shipwrecks his enemies. Their behavior, though they sense they survived miraculously, is what it was: the commonplace strife of mean ambition. Among them is Ferdinand, a youth fresh as Miranda, a proper choice for a match tomorrow notwithstanding the influence of nasty court companions and servants coarse and dissolute. A mirror of society as it ever was.
From the conjured tempest that casts Prospero's antagonists ashore to their final discomfiture, we relish the entertainment of Shakespeare's stage, its "brief two hours traffic." Self-possessed, Prospero the dispassionate mage observes them as in a glass darkly. Hapless puppets they may be, if not helpless, though Ariel arranges confusion that confounds them with despair. Were it not a lot rife with bitter comedy more or less implicit in our lives, we would not sit to watch it played out.
There is little to offer the library of commentary on The Tempest except what has lately occurred to me. It is as if I were to peer through the wrong end of a spyglass watching the surrounding world grow distant while I drift towards an end. I think of it Shakespeare's gift: an insight into old age, oldest old age.
Consider the little scene he presents in which Miranda and Ferdinand her intended are "discovered" playing chess. Chess may be regarded as a metaphor of society: opposing armies of kings, queens, bishops, knights, and pawn soldiers fielded in a war to the end. They are moved in mortal combat by unseen hands according to fixed rules, placed in squares on a board. After the first move, the game is fought through strategies evolved from one player's move, the other's response. Whatever the outcome, it is realized in the interplay of force. In The Tempest a young couple sits at chess, unaware their game is life's game. That life's but a game ruled by chance is unthinkable. Still, that's what we're told by the Epilogue. Montaigne believed chance was determined by a goddess named Fortuna. In the mid-20th Century, we were offered the philosophical opinion that our existence was a manifestation of the Absurd. Whether the Absurd be goddess or god, it is as unapproachable and implacable as ever Fortuna was for our most remote ancestors.
After having moved his pieces here and there about that desert isle, Prospero discharges Ariel and shows himself as he has at last become, a free man. Today Ariel might be thought of as his creative power, which is as much as to say his imagination, the faculty inspired by Socrates's Eros. Prospero puts down his pupil Caliban, an unregenerate creature of flesh personifying the animal within that nevertheless knows itself well: "You taught me language, and my profit on't, is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you. For learning me your language!" Prospero no longer needs them in this closing hour of his age. He discards his magical rod, no longer needing a wonder-working staff like the one Moses wielded against Egyptian wizards that had such an instrument themselves. He sees the world as it was and always will be: a dream.
As one is relieved of lifelong illusions whether malefic or blessed, whether imposed or pursued, there remain still some tasks. If the mind be clear in oldest age, Thoreau's Simplify! is answered. I recall our first friends on our arrival in California on Labor Day of 1961. They were Joan Wight, an intelligent and worldly Englishwoman, and Frederick Wight her husband. We'd been referred to them by a mutual friend back East. An artist, novelist, and director of UCLA's gallery, Fred chaired the Art Department. Our relationship, sealed immediately, was to be close during a half-century; it remained so after Fred died of prostate cancer in 1986. Joan was that rarest of persons, a "classy" woman, to put it in vernacular. When she declined and grew disabled, my wife would take new books to her. Twenty years vanished like morning mist and a day came when she said to my wife, "Don't bring a book this week. I need to concentrate on dying." Clear as diamond after the play of words and action—the staged business and busyness of drama—is set aside, what's left is The Tempest's Epilogue. Think of it as saying what Joan's concentration that last week of dying may have said to her.
Prospero's dispassionate, even godlike phrases are moreover the quintessence of Comedy. Not the low clowning of a Trinculo and Stefano but that undefinable a baffled Socrates proposed. He thought of it as a mixed form, a blending of Comedy with Tragedy. As Chesterfield put it in a letter , it is a je ne sais quoi. To both our experience and mind inexplicable.
The Tempest's Epilogue has been heard by audiences since 1611. Yet not until this epoch in my life when I must acknowledge mortality has that Epilogue seemed the vision that ought to be recognized before the hour of death. Montaigne writing in 1576 his famous essay "An Apology for Raymond Sebond" recurs there and elsewhere in the Essais to our notions of death, observing that the thing itself, the thing in itself, no matter myriad conceptions ancient and modern, cannot be known. Whatever is supposed to be the state of things afterward is vainly supposed. How we cope with or seek to command our lives is the subject of his Essais. In the manner of Socrates, his favorite, he reviews efforts whether by ordinary folk or philosophers to contemplate what we are. Socrates wrote no books. At his end he talked with friends about the ethos of living the good life—until a draught of hemlock took him off to what in Italian is called the aldila, or perhaps into nothingness nowhere.
Two things regarding Socrates are to this hour obscure. We do not know what he thought about Diotima, the Sibyl he'd once left Athens to consult. As Plato records it in The Symposium, he returned from her with news of Eros, the god or mysterious power that inspires the making of poems. Eros is what the young Dylan Thomas named "the force that through the green fuse drives the flower." Socrates also gained from her a notion regarding the aim and purpose of life, expressed by the simile of steps ascending to love, a ladder to Love. What his thoughts were as he quaffed that mortal cup are unknown. Scholiasts have more or less concluded Montaigne, all things considered, was a skeptic, even near Pyrrhonic. Contemplating humanity in his Essais, one may imagine his eyebrows raised in amusement at the folly of our presumptions regarding all and everything mankind believed, prescribed as laws by virtue of being held sacred. John Florio's translation in three volumes having appeared in 1603, it is likely Shakespeare read Montaigne. In any case, the thought recognizable everywhere in Montaigne's Essais is distilled into six lines of The Tempest's Epilogue.
It may be worth noting that poetry per se was sung and spoken long before philosophy, and that philosophers have been at pains to supersede poets. I remind students that most of what is taught as the principal subjects in college in whatever field that is not mathematics, biology, or physics and engineering—that is, the social sciences, history, literature, philosophy, the Humanities, in short—is about events. Whereas a poem says out what was, is passing, or to come, as Yeats puts it elegiacally in "Sailing to Byzantium." Poetry, understood as what the Greeks termed "making," "creating," emanates from that force; call it the energy of Eros primordially released in speech, recorded or written in poems.
Regarding the three greatest poets of Western civilization—Virgil, Dante, and Shakespeare—George Santayana (d. 1952) ranked Dante above the others, considering Shakespeare lesser because he is godless. Notwithstanding, for Shakespeare as with Montaigne, it is not a matter of gods, or the god of monotheism. Nor of knowing what death may or may not be according to whatever articles of faith. When well over a half-century ago I happened to say to our Calvinist chaplain Colin Miller at Hamilton College that I knew no God, he declared, sonorous and stentorial as though he preached to me from the Sunday morning pulpit—I recall him standing left arm atop the refrigerator at a faculty party—"But God knows you!" Out of respect for my kind friend, I let that pass, assuming it was that glass of scotch whiskey in his right hand fueled his Scottish hubris. Oh, I thought to myself, is that so?
At any rate, today's cosmologist studies a monitor's screen and calculates the birth and death or being and non-being as it occurs in infinitely small particles, constituents of the substratum of matter, even as they are caused to appear instantly into being and pass from it. They are traced as the radiation saturating the universe since the Big Bang inflated, expanding from a mere 20kg mass containing the energy that makes up our universe. Santayana had his god just as had Presbyterian Colin Miller; but no matter what name they use and worship, concerning His being, nothing can be known. It is the same with death. Montaigne says that. Shakespeare says the same.
It may be painful to ponder the Comedy revealed by Prospero's last words. It may be difficult to accept, distressing to deny them, yet there they stand. A possible modern response to them comes to mind, darkly bright yet brightly dark in these my latter days: what the poet Yeats composed for his own epitaph. After a life's suffering through social, political, personal, sexual, and intellectual confusion, he set it down:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by