Friday, August 31, 2007

A Favorite Poem

As I have written before, Wallace Stevens has been one of my favorite poets since my first encounters with poetry in high school. His mingling of emotion and intellect, his reticent intimacies, the verbal and mental poise of his poems against the pressures of the world both material and social, have always represented for me a model of what poetry could be and do, of what I aspired to in my own poetry. “The World as Meditation” is a beautiful musing on memory and desire and imagination and absence, on what the mind can make of what it is given and of what is withheld from it. With all the vicissitudes and distractions of my life, I hope that my dedication to what is essential, the barbarous strength within me, though it may have faltered at times, has never failed.


J’ai passé trop de temps à travailler mon violon, à voyager. Mais l’exercice essential du compositeur—la meditation—rien ne l’a jamais suspendu en moi… Je vis un rêve permanent, qui ne s’arrête ni nuit ni jour.” (I have spent too much time practicing my violin, and traveling. But the essential exercise of the composer—meditation—has never stopped in me… I live in a permanent dream, which ceases neither night nor day.)—Georges Enesco

It is Ulysses that approaches from the east,
The interminable adventurer? The trees are mended.
That winter is washed away. Someone is moving

On the horizon and lifting himself up above it.
A form of fire approaches the cretonnes of Penelope,
Whose mere savage presence awakens the world in which she dwells.

She has composed, so long, a self with which to welcome him,
Companion to his self for her, which she imagined,
Two in a deep-founded sheltering, friend and dear friend.

The trees had been mended, as an essential exercise
In an inhuman meditation, larger than her own.
No winds like dogs watched over her at night.

She wanted nothing he could not bring her by coming alone.
She wanted no fetchings. His arms would be her necklace
And her belt, the final fortune of their desire.

But was it Ulysses? Or was it only the warmth of the sun
On her pillow? The thought kept beating in her like her heart.
The two kept beating together. It was only day.

It was Ulysses and it was not. Yet they had met,
Friend and dear friend and a planet's encouragement.
The barbarous strength within her would never fail.

She would talk a little to herself as she combed her hair,
Repeating his name with its patient syllables,
Never forgetting him that kept coming constantly so near.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

"Working Class Hero"*

Because of the schools I have attended (all on assorted scholarships), because of my publishing success (it took me three years and three hundred submissions before I published a single poem), because I do not comport myself in a stereotypical lower-class manner, some people assume that I come from an economically comfortable background, that I have always known success, or that my success as a writer is due to social connections. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I am sure that everyone experiences a degree of cognitive dissonance between their own self-conceptions and the way they are seen by others. But if one is black, if one is gay, if one has been raised in poverty (as I was, in tenements and housing projects in the Bronx), if as an individual one has never fit into the various social contexts to which one has been expected or even to which one has hoped to belong, the burden of the distance between one’s own sense of self and the fixed and often distorted images others have of one is especially heavy.

Though I have a publishing career, some highly contingent place in the literary world, that still feels as if it could be snatched away at any time, and my material life is quite precarious. I certainly don’t have the financial security and stability I had hoped and expected to achieve by this age and this point in my career. I haven’t done the things that one should do to be successful. I haven’t networked, haven’t schmoozed. I’ve been no one’s sycophant, and though I would have liked to have had patronage, to have been someone’s protégé (something I had naively hoped to get out of attending Iowa), that hasn’t happened. I even foolishly removed the thanks to my teachers from my first book, afraid that readers would think that I owed my publications to them. Nor have I ever been a member of any club or clique.

Unlike the vast majority of those in academia or the literary world, I have nothing to fall back on. Since leaving my Aunt Mildred's house in Macon, Georgia, where I lived for two years after my mother's death, at seventeen, I have been on my own. It’s vanishingly rare for someone from my background, having nothing (no family, no independent resources, no “home”), to have achieved anything in the literary world, which often seems the preserve of those born with trust funds. English in particular seems to be largely populated by those who aspire to an Edith Wharton-esque, prissy, propriety-obsessed hyper-WASPiness: something which as I recall from The House of Mirth made all concerned quite miserable.

Several years ago I read a profile in The New Yorker of Jorie Graham, who as my teacher at Iowa once told me that I had had everything handed to me, to my ex-lover Chris Cutrone, a video-maker and critical theorist who grew up in a working class neighborhood on Long Island. He and I had bonded, among other grounds, as intellectuals and artists from poor backgrounds, people who as kids knew lots of words we couldn’t pronounce correctly, because we’d only read them in books. Hearing about Graham’s childhood in an Italian villa, the lavish parties her mother (a prominent sculptor once featured in a Gap ad) threw attended by Roman Catholic cardinals and Italian nobility, her marriage to the son of the owner of The Washington Post, Chris turned to me and said, “It reminds you that people like us weren’t meant to be artists, doesn’t it?” The art that saved me has so often belonged to the wealthy and privileged that it’s hard to remember that it’s not merely an ornament of power. Part of my project as a writer has necessarily (in order for me to be a writer at all) been to attempt to disentangle art’s liberatory from its oppressive aspects, to remember that those who so often own art don’t define it, that (as Adorno pointed out) art is the enemy of culture and culture is the enemy of art.

I had a dream that perfectly encapsulated my relationship to academia. I was in graduate school, walking with two professors, one an older white man and one a young hipster (swarthy, indeterminately ethnic, shoulder length hair, snazzy green blazer). The older professor was musing over some rhetorical question whose answer he didn’t really care about (something faux-political, as I recall), but I tried to respond anyway, and the hip young professor put his hand over my mouth and said, “We don’t need to hear from you about this.”

As the John Lennon song my title alludes to points out, they hate you if you’re clever, and they despise a fool. But I will be heard from. I’m determined not to leave the field to those born with spoons of various precious metals in their mouths (who nowadays include the children of the black bourgeoisie, however much they whine about “the rage of a privileged class”). The culture I’ve acquired with so much work may be their birthright, but I appreciate it in a way that those who take it for granted rarely do. It means something to me—it means everything to me. Sometimes I stand in the poetry section of Barnes and Noble and wonder how many authors there come from backgrounds like mine. They can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

My oldest friend’s mother once asked me why, coming from what I came from, I thought that the world would or should be fair. I didn’t have an answer then, but now I realize that it’s because I believed that the world outside the prison house in which I was born and raised would be different. It was that hope, that faith, really, that kept me going, that keeps me going. Every “A” I got, every prize I won, was a punch in my ticket to that elsewhere. I wanted to escape the ghetto, but I also wanted to go somewhere better, which meant believing that there was somewhere better: my version of optimism, or simply blind faith. I have gone from place to place, from circumstance to circumstance, and still haven’t found that fair, just place, but I continue to search, hoping and believing that there’s a place for me.

I know that there are many smart and talented young people in the ghettos who haven’t have the luck I had, the opportunities, or just a mother determined that they would be something more than a statistic, but I also know that sometimes the system that puts one in one’s place and keeps one there with an iron-toed boot pressed down on one’s throat can be circumvented, though hardly defeated. Indeed, if one doesn’t come from privilege, one has no choice but to circumvent that system if one wants to breathe at all, and I have always insisted on drawing on my own breath. I am living proof of both the possibility and the precariousness of such an escape. I was not meant to survive this world. Many people have tried to crush me, sometimes with the best of intentions, as I know they have crushed others who have refused to know their place. I consider my survival a form of victory, however tenuous and conditional.

*For those who miss the irony in my title, seeing it as mere self-aggrandizement or self-pity, I point out the irony here. In the song to which this title refers, John Lennon means both that a working class hero is something to be and that a working class hero is nothing to be.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Mythology in Poetry

Mythology can serve several functions in poetry. Myths are interesting in their own right as culturally resonant, compelling, amusing, frightening, or just intriguing stories, an engaging realm to explore. They are a reservoir of cultural knowledge, hopes, fears, and passions, of archetypal figures and situations, an inexhaustibly rich lode of charged materials that each poetic generation can mine and remake. Much of Western literature is built on allusions to mythology, particularly to Classical mythology and to Judaeo-Christian mythology, and much of it doesn’t make sense without knowledge of those myths. Myth can also be used to place one’s own experiences, thoughts, and feelings in a larger context, opening them up to realms beyond the individual, making them less purely personal and idiosyncratic, as Louise Glück does in Meadowlands, in which she treats her own divorce in the terms of the myth of Odysseus. One may not have access to Glück’s personal experience, or even care about it, but anyone has access to the stories in which she couches that experience in that book, and the myth opens up beyond the merely private.

Mythology presents gods and demigods and heroes who are projections and embodiments of human fears and desires and primal impulses. While we introject these feelings and experiences and call them, among things, the unconscious, the ancient Greeks, for example, projected them outward into figures and stories that enacted and embodied them. When one was in love, one was possessed by Aphrodite; when one was wise, one was being whispered to by Athene. The world of Greek myth is very plastic and capacious, but at the same time it has a great formal elegance. It is based not on ethical precepts or prescriptions but on the proper relations to power and desire, to forces that (like the forces of nature) are, in Nietzsche’s phrase, beyond good and evil, but which are always beautiful (keeping in mind that beauty can be both terrible and strange, that beauty is a danger as well as a seduction, and often both at once).

That combination of elasticity and capaciousness of emotional and intellectual content with shapeliness, that containment of force within form (what I have elsewhere called the confluence of glory and catastrophe), can serve as a model for what the poem should be and do. Myth is also similar to poetry in its formal operations. Myth is essentially metaphorical: like poetry, it translates “feelings” in the sense of emotions and thoughts into “feelings” in the sense of physical sensations; it takes the intangible and makes it palpable, embodying rage and anger in the figure of Ares, and for that matter embodying poetry’s transformations and seductions in the figure of Apollo, poetry’s patron god.

We should also remember that “mythology” doesn’t just mean ancient Greek or Roman stories, tales from ancient Egypt or the times of the Vikings. Anthropologically, the stories of the Judaeo-Christian tradition—the creation of human beings and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt (including the ten plagues and the parting of the Red Sea) and Moses’ delivery of the Ten Commandments from atop Mount Sinai, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, the lives of the saints and their legends—are all myths. And these myths do the same things for past and current believers that they did for various ancient peoples: they make sense of a world that is rarely reliably or securely in our control, they reconcile us to tragedy and other painful events, they help us to deal with the intractable fact of death, and they project human fears, hopes, and desires outward into shapely figures and coherent narratives.

There are three main ways in which writers engage with myth, though of course these modes aren’t mutually exclusive, and all can overlap with one another. A writer can retell the myth, staying within the terms of the myth and basically giving another version of what’s already been written and handed down. This is, from my perspective, the least interesting way to approach myth—it adds little new, doesn’t explore very much or investigate or question. A writer can relive the myth, entering into it to explore a moment or a character, perhaps opening up an underdeveloped element in the myth, while still accepting the overall terms of the myth. Or a writer can revise the myth, questioning its terms, bringing out what it represses or excludes, giving voice to those whom it silences, giving presence to those it makes invisible. The German critic Walter Benjamin called this reading against the grain. This approach has been especially popular with women writers exploring and interrogating the role of women in classical myth, who are so often objects but not subjects of desire, spoken of endlessly but rarely getting to speak on their own behalf.

Circe's Power

Louise Glück

I never turned anyone into a pig.
Some people are pigs; I make them
Look like pigs.

I’m sick of your world
That lets the outside disguise the inside. Your men weren’t bad men;
Undisciplined life
Did that to them. As pigs,

Under the care of
Me and my ladies, they
Sweetened right up.

Then I reversed the spell, showing you my goodness
As well as my power. I saw

We could be happy here,
As men and women are
When their needs are simple. In the same breath,

I foresaw your departure,
Your men with my help braving
The crying and pounding sea. You think

A few tears upset me? My friend,
Every sorceress is
A pragmatist at heart; nobody sees essence who can’t
Face limitation. If I wanted only to hold you

I could hold you prisoner.


Amy Gerstler

I have a fish’s tail, so I’m not qualified to love you.
But I do. Pale as an August sky, pale as flour milled
a thousand times, pale as the icebergs I have never seen,
and twice as numb—my skin is such a contrast to the rough
rocks I lie on, that from far away it looks like I’m a baby
riding a dinosaur. The turn of centuries or the turn
of a page means the same to me, little or nothing.
I have teeth in places you’d never suspect. Come. Kiss me
and die soon. I slap my tail in the shallows—which is to say
I appreciate nature. You see my sisters and me perched
on rocks and tiny islands here and there for miles:
untangling our hair with our fingers, eating seaweed.

Ulysses on the Way Back From Troy

Zona Teti

Further west there was the bee-buzz of Sirens
impassioned like the jobless.

Already gone were the thick shoes
on the shore-rock as they changed to hooves.

Gone as well all souls
puffing behind the ship
like an ash-cloud in a slow wind.

Everything had come to be nude:
the voices munching in me like a riddle,
the women, the stones stripped
from the glue of snails.

But I chose them all and their opposites
while others take one and swear at life.
The god didn’t care. He let his hair
float up like seaweed, a magistrate
of water haunting his own country.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Caliban to the Audience: The Tempest as Colonialist and Anti-Colonialist Text

Stephen Greenblatt, with an enviable critical certainty, informs us that “Shakespeare’s plays are centrally and repeatedly concerned with the production and containment of subversion and disorder” (29). The plays summon up challenges to the social and symbolic order so that these challenges may then be contained by means of various ideological mystifications. At the same time, the very necessity of this repeated gesture of containment enacts the possibility (indeed, the inevitability) of its own failure. Ideology is, after all, the imaginary resolution of real contradictions. The challenges these plays attempt to master—challenges to the patriarchal family, to patrilineal succession, to the subordination of the “base-born” to the “noble” and of women to men—were and are not reducible to dangers within discourse: as the long history of, on the one hand, wars of dynastic succession and, on the other hand, peasant rebellions and uprisings illustrates.

The Tempest, if read in relation to the (evolving and inconsistent) English colonial project in the New World, lays out the real contradictions it will imaginarily (that is, ideologically) resolve with exemplary clarity. The play “serves as a limit text in which the characteristic operations of colonialist discourse may be discerned—as an instrument of exploitation, a register of beleaguerment and a site of radical ambivalence. These operations produce strategies and stereotypes which seek to impose and efface colonial power; in this text they are also driven into contradiction and disruption” (Brown 68). My emphasis is on the ways in which the play disrupts the incipient English colonial project by unmasking and disrupting the smooth operation of its mechanics. Whether the play’s rather edifying laying bare of the device (to cite the Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky’s phrase) of imperialism would in its own time have been read as a critique of these mechanisms’ mendacity or merely as confirmation of their cleverness and efficacy is not a question I, or anyone now living, can answer. It is also a question that, as Greenblatt indicates in his discussion of Thomas Harriot’s A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia, need not be taken to have had an unequivocal answer even at the time of the play’s original performance, especially given what Paul Brown calls the ambivalences and contradictions of the colonial discourse itself.

Thomas Cartelli argues that the play’s “capacity to make a significant intervention in the formation of colonialist discourse and in the development of colonialist practices... was inhibited from the start by the play’s generic resemblances to and rehearsals of contemporary reports of colonial encounters. Indeed, the play’s very participation in this formative moment through the medium of Prospero’s expropriation of Caliban’s island, and his act’s perceived consistency with the colonial ventures of a [Sir Walter] Raleigh and the partisan writings of the Hakluyts, can be said to have condemned the play to participate also in that discourse’s evolution and eventual rigidification in the imperial moment of Britain’s colonization of Africa” (108-109). However, Cartelli’s subsequent discussion of postcolonial and anti-imperialist appropriations of the play demonstrates that it need not be read, or taken to be readable, so univocally.

The Tempest is not simply a reflection of colonialist practices but an intervention in an ambivalent and even contradictory discourse. This intervention takes the form of a powerful and pleasurable narrative which seeks at once to harmonize disjunction, to transcend irreconcilable contradictions and to mystify the political conditions which demand colonialist discourse. Yet the narrative ultimately fails to deliver that containment and instead may be seen to foreground precisely those problems which it works to efface or overcome” (Brown 48). By allowing the “Other” to speak and make his case, if only in the ostensible master’s language, the text permits the undermining of the colonialist discourse it not only participates in but in some ways inaugurates. Indeed, the very fact of Caliban’s mastery of the master’s tongue “ensures that its interpellation of him as simply savage, ‘a born devil, on whose nature/Nurture can never stick’ (IV.i.188-9) is inadequate. Paradoxically, it is the eloquent power of civility which allows him to know [and to speak] his own meaning, offering him a site of resistance even as civility’s coercive capacities finally reduce him to silence” (Brown 62-63). That “civility” is thus shown to require coercion to produce the Other’s silence may be taken as an indication of the play’s resistance to its own apparent ideological project. Whether the text actively works to undermine colonialist discourse or merely “permits” a reading that produces such subversion is an open question.

Whether The Tempest is “about” the English colonial project in any direct way is another question without much in the way of an unequivocal answer, as the long history of critical controversy on this point (a history I will not engage here) illustrates. Whatever its surface engagements with the dynastic affairs of the ruling houses of various Italian petty states, the play is very much informed by the anxieties and excitations of the English encounter with the Western hemisphere and the various peoples inhabiting that world much less “New” to them. These anxieties, along with those relating to dynasty and proper kinship relations, are within its confines worked through in a displaced and condensed manner much like that of the Freudian dream-work. (Paul Brown has explored this analogy, and the related concept of the play’s political unconscious, in much greater detail in the essay from which I have quoted so extensively.)

The Tempest’s status as a privileged text in the history of colonialist discourse” (Cartelli 110) seems neither coincidental or accidental. I am struck by the constant parallel the play asks the reader or viewer to draw between the relations of Prospero to Caliban and Ariel and the relations of the English colonists to the “Indians” of the “New World,” even down to such details as the remarkable resemblance of the water with berries in it Prospero gives Caliban to the liquor the Europeans introduced to the “natives.” It furthermore proleptically figures many aspects of the European colonial project in its full exfoliation, particularly that project’s “convergence of assumed high-mindedness with brutality” (Cartelli 110).

My discussion focuses on the figure of Caliban, reading the play from what can only be my version of his perspective. Caliban and Ariel can together be read as a double vision of the indigenous peoples of the “New World,” a vision (simultaneously wishful and prophetic) in which their threat to the colonial project has been securely neutralized at the very moment of being acknowledged.

Ariel is a figure of the “good” native who, though he may at times complain of his servitude, still accedes to it. To put it crudely, he is the hard-working darky who loves and is loved by his master, and performs his imposed labors with good cheer. He accepts (though under explicit threat) Prospero’s version of his enslavement as a form of liberation:

...Thou best know’st
What torment I did find thee in;...
...It was mine art,
When I arriv’d and heard thee, that made gape
The pine, and let thee out.

Ariel: I thank thee, master. (I.ii.286-287, 291-293)

Except in its literalization as entrapment in a tree, Prospero’s account of the brute state of nature from which he has ostensibly rescued Ariel closely resembles European justifications of their presence in and domination of the soi-disant New World. “Ariel is, paradoxically, bound in service by this constant reminder of Prospero’s gift of freedom to him, in releasing him from imprisonment in a tree. That bondage is reinforced by both a promise to repeat the act of release when a period of servitude has expired and a promise to repeat the act of incarceration should service not be forthcoming” (Brown 60). In one of the play’s many imaginary resolutions, Ariel is manumitted for having served so faithfully and so well: he is set free as a reward for not having attempted to free himself.

By contrast, Caliban is a figure of the bad, “rebellious” native. In striking contrast to Ariel, Caliban is in Prospero’s version of things denied his very indigenousness, though whatever Sycorax’s provenance her son was born on the island. It is Caliban who insists on his “illegitimate” rights to the land Prospero has “discovered”:

This island’s mine by Sycorax my mother,
Which thou tak’st from me. (I.ii.331-332)

Prospero’s implicit counter-assertion that before his arrival “this island/...[was] not honor’d with/A human shape,” except, and merely parenthetically, for Caliban, who does not, in Prospero’s view, quite count:

Dull thing, I say so; he, that Caliban
Whom I now keep in service. (I.ii.284-285)

is hardly different in kind from the pretensions of the European invaders in nominating two well-populated continents as a “New World,” and their own.

Caliban’s claim to the island is made in specifically dynastic terms, and thus both parallels and rivals Prospero’s to Milan and Ferdinand’s to Naples. Caliban and Prospero share the status of rulers dispossessed of their demesnes by false-dealing. For that matter, Caliban, as a deposed king, actually ranks higher than Prospero does as a deposed duke. Caliban’s supposed attempted rape of Miranda, besides serving as an example of the way in which “things of darkness” are regularly accused of provoking their own enslavement or worse (the rape attempt is, after all, the reason Prospero gives for Caliban’s servitude), mirrors, as in a glass, darkly, Ferdinand’s determinedly chaste (determined by Prospero, that is) courtship of Miranda later in the play. Caliban’s aborted union with Miranda represents the possibility of a dynastic alliance of the island with Milan. This possibility, of equality between two forces not yet definitely marked as colonized and colonizer, is one Prospero rejects in favor of subjugating the island to his power and thus to that of Europe as figured by Milan. “[W]hat appears to disturb Prospero even more than Caliban’s foiled attempt to violate Miranda’s honor is Caliban’s insistence on recalling his former sovereignty, his repeated effort to lay claim to a history and inheritance which imply a state of equality at odds with his assigned status as slave. It is in the face of Caliban’s assertion that ‘I am all the subjects that you have,/Which first was my own King’ [sic] (and not to any denial of his attempt to rape Miranda) that Prospero responds, ‘Thou most lying slave,/Whom stripes may move, not kindness’ (I.ii.343-4, 346-7)” (Cartelli 110).

In this light, Caliban’s status as only son of the island’s previous ruler, with a duty to perpetuate his line by producing an heir, becomes more clear, and his exclamation that

...I had peopled else
This isle with Calibans. (I.ii.350-351)

is seen as more than the expression of mere bestial lust Prospero insists it be taken as, but rather as an expression of the dynastic imperative which Caliban and Prospero share. What also becomes clear from this viewpoint is Ferdinand’s status as the approved, white European version of Caliban. Ferdinand is the one with a royal claim (and thus, in a rigidly hierarchical society in which one’s purchase on humanity is defined by one’s status, a claim to full personhood) acknowledged and respected within the European power system. Just as Caliban sees and desires Miranda, and specifically sees her as a mother of potential heirs, so Ferdinand sees and desires Miranda as a potential Queen of Naples: he’ll people Naples with Ferdinands. That Prospero both rejects Caliban’s claim to kingship and knows Ferdinand’s claim to (present though not future) kingship to be an illusion (since Ferdinand’s father Alonso, King of Naples, is not in fact dead, though Ferdinand, thinks that he is) points up the parallel further, because both the false nature of Caliban’s claim and the illusory nature of Ferdinand’s are Prospero’s doing.

The implicitly deceitful friendliness Caliban accuses Prospero of practicing on the latter’s first arrival on the island (in a condition, like that of the first colonial settlers in the “New World,” of great vulnerability and need) seems remarkably like that of the first Virginia colonists. Whatever counter-argument Prospero presents, Caliban clearly indicates that Prospero used him to learn the lay of the (is)land, then enslaved him when Prospero’s position of superiority was secured:

...When thou cam’st first,
Thou strok’st me and made much of me, wouldst give me
Water with berries in’t...
...and then I lov’d thee
And show’d thee all the qualities o’ th’ isle,
The fresh springs, brine-pits, barren place and fertile.
Curs’d be I that did so!...
For I am all the subjects that you have,
Which first was mine own king; and here you sty me
In this hard rock, whiles you do keep from me
The rest o’ th’ island. (I.ii.332-334, 336-339, 341-344)

That part of Prospero’s response to his “lying slave” is the assertion to “have us’d thee/(Filth as thou art) with human care” (I.ii.345-346) does not support the justice of his claim, especially given the ambiguity of the word “use.”

The English colonists’ use of religion and superior technology appearing as magic to manipulate the natives is analogous to Prospero’s use of magic gotten from books to subdue and render usefully obedient Caliban and Ariel. (“Bible,” in case we needed any reminding, means “book.”) “If we remember that, like virtually all sixteenth-century Europeans in the New World, the English resisted or were incapable of provisioning themselves and were in consequence dependent upon the Indians for food, we may grasp the central importance for the colonists of this dawning Indian fear of the Christian God. As Machiavelli understood, physical compulsion is essential but never sufficient; the survival of the rulers depends upon a supplement of coercive belief” (Greenblatt 23). As Caliban says, prompted as much by Prospero’s repeated insistence on his power to compel his “slave” to “make our fire,/Fetch in our wood, and [serve] in office/That profit us” (I.ii.311-313) as by the pinches and frights and trifles that Prospero sets on him when he expresses insubordination,

...His art is of such power
It would control my dam’s god Setebos,
And make a vassal of him. (I.ii.371-373)

Greenblatt describes the English manipulating such occasions as the spread of epidemic disease as demonstrations of the superior strength of their God versus the gods of the Indians (Setebos, we should recall, was the English version of the name of a Patagonian god); similarly, Prospero manipulates his control over elves and “demi-puppets” to impose such a belief on Caliban. “The key to this the coercive power of religious belief, and the source of this power is the impression made by advanced technology [in this case, Prospero’s books] upon a ‘backward’ people” (Greenblatt 24). Indeed, the lesson of the Stephano-Trinculo sub-plot (besides that European social inferiors who attempt to rise above their station will always and easily be put back in their rightful places) is that Caliban has taken the wrong white men (i.e., commoners) to be gods: “Caliban misrecognizes true sovereignty and gives his fealty rather to a drunken servant” (Brown 64). It is rather as if Moctezuma II had bowed down to Cortés’ valet rather than to the great conquistador himself.

Near the end of the play Prospero, in the course of an elaborate and elaborately rhetorical boast of the powers of his “so potent art,” powers of which we hear much but of which, except for the titular storm itself, we see little evidence in the play, where the arts practiced are primarily those of illusion, allows that the forces at his command are “Weak masters” in comparison with the demons summoned up by black magic, thus implicitly admitting his powers to be inferior to those of “the foul witch Sycorax.” As is more explicitly acknowledged in the masque of the three goddesses acted out by sprites, Prospero’s power in the play subsists largely in the performance of a spectacle of power, a pageant which produces the very power it purports to instantiate and represent. Like the English colonists, Prospero both conceals and overcomes his physical weakness (vis à vis the Indians or Caliban) by a staging of his metaphysical strength.

“Theatricality [in this most self-referentially theatrical of plays] is then not set over against power but is one of power’s essential modes” (Greenblatt 33). I choose to read The Tempest’s almost brazen theatricalization of colonial power as a critique, well aware that it could also be read as that power’s spectacle of self-congratulation at the effectiveness of the devices this performance lays bare.

Works Cited

Brown, Paul. “‘This Thing of Darkness I Acknowledge Mine’: The Tempest and the Discourse of Colonialism.” In Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism. Ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1985.

Cartelli, Thomas. “Prospero in Africa: The Tempest as Colonialist Text and Pretext.” In Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology. Ed. Jean E. Howard and Marian F. O’Connor. New York: Methuen, 1987.

Greenblatt, Stephen. “Invisible Bullets: Renaissance Authority and Its Subversion, Henry IV and Henry V.” In Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism. Ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield.. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1985

Monday, August 6, 2007

An Insightful Piece on Accessibility, Difficulty, and Their Relationship to Artistic Quality

Robert Philen has another very insightful piece on his always fascinating blog on the questions of accessibility and difficulty in art and their relationship to artistic quality, in which he makes the point that neither attribute has any intrinsic relationship to artistic quality; nor does a work's relative popularity or obscurity determine or even indicate its quality. Philen argues against the common assumptions either that a work which is accessible and/or popular is thereby good (this viewpoint usually dismisses more difficult work as "elitist" or "exclusionary") or that a work which is difficult and/or obscure is therefore good (this viewpoint usually dismisses more accessible work as meretricious at worst, at best not to be taken seriously).

As Philen writes, "What I’d like to most emphasize here is that when it comes to artistic expression, accessibility/difficulty is an important quality (or really a set of qualities, given different varieties of difficulty) which is independent of the aesthetic merits of a work, that is, independent of whether a work manifests something profound or beautiful, independent of whether a work successfully unifies the concrete and universal, the timely and timeless (see my recent post, "Great Art, Timeliness, and Timelessness").

"This is actually a fairly simple and straightforward point, but I make it in opposition to common claims or assumptions that either accessibility or difficulty signal either good or bad art.

"Similar assumptions are often made with regard to a related quality of creative expression--its popularity or obscurity (like accessibility and difficulty, these are simply inverse ways to regard the same basic quality). (These qualities are related not in that most accessible art is particularly popular nor that most obscure art is necessarily difficult. For that matter, a work’s level of popularity or obscurity can change over time without its level of difficulty particularly.... Instead, the relationship between accessibility/difficulty and popularity/obscurity is more that most popular works tend to be relatively accessible and most difficult works tend to be more obscure...."

I encourage everyone to read this clear-minded piece that cuts through the fog of assumptions and presumptions in which many who write about the arts operate.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

An Important Piece on the Continuing Value of Enlightenment Ideals

On his always interesting and engaging blog, Robert Philen has posted an important piece called "Enlightenment Values"arguing against the currently popular tendency to denigrate or dismiss the universalist values of Englightenment humanism because its founding figures didn't always adhere in practice to their own values. Philen points out that the fact that the actions of some of the framers of the ideals of the Enlightenment didn't always live up to those ideals doesn't negate the value of those ideals. In fact, this critique of the Enlightenment is itself based on the very Enlightenment values whose hollowness it claims to unveil.

The prolific historian J.M. Roberts makes the same point about both Marxism and Christianity in his book The Triumph of the West: "The appalling practical outcome of the installation of Marxism in some countries as a state religion no more affects [the judgment that Marxism restates and summarizes some of the West's most central ideas] than scores of historical examples of institutional Christianity acting in a repressive, uncreative way in the past nineteen hundred years nullify the central messages of the Gospels" (80).

As Philen points out, "The fact that Thomas Jefferson was a slaveholder doesn’t undermine his words regarding liberty and equality. It makes him a hypocrite, something he himself was aware of, but it doesn’t and shouldn’t make his words in the Declaration of Independence any less stirring (nor do you have to be a communist to be stirred by the evocation of those very words by Ho Chi Minh against French colonialism in the mid-20th century). Nor was his slaveholding a part of an Enlightenment Project. Instead, this was a practice resisting such a project and contradicting his own stated values."

I encourage everyone to read this insightful and bracingly sensible piece.