Sunday, November 21, 2010

Dramatic Illusion in A Midsummer Nights's Dream: The Play Within The Play

The only other play of Shakespeare's, so far as I can recollect, to have another play tucked inside it is Hamlet. As you may remember, Hamlet has the players who happen to be passing through Elsinore put on a play that mimics the circumstances of his father's death—or rather, murder. It is a test, or, as Hamlet calls it a mousetrap. When the King reacts violently to this play, Hamlet knows that his father's ghost had told him the truth. What he doesn't realize is that by exposing the King as a murderer, he has also blown his own cover. Now the King knows what Hamlet knows.

The play-within-the-play in A Midsummer Night's Dream that the tradesmen of Athens put on for the entertainment of the court—"A tedious brief scene of young Pyramus/ And his love Thisby; very tragical mirth"—is only slightly connected to the plot of the play. The cast happens to be rehearsing in the forest near the spot where the aristocratic lovers of the main plot have agreed to meet, which also happens to be the place where Oberon and Titania (King and Queen of the faeries) are trying—and failing—to settle their differences over who should possess a particular 'changeling' child'; he resorts to force i.e. magic. But magic, like force, can have unintended consequences: the aristocratic lovers become totally confused, and Bottom, the weaver, mischievously given a donkey's head by Oberon's agent, Puck, becomes the willing lover of Titania, the intended victim of Oberon's magic.

While Bottom is having the time of his life as the bestial object of Titania's sexual desires,  the upper-class lovers are madly chasing each other through the forest in abject confusion.

When the magic spells are finally lifted, everyone is happy to be able to get on with their lives: the lovers return to Athens in perfect harmony with each other—each lad has his lass and vice-versa—Titania and Oberon are reunited as if nothing untoward had happened, and Peter Quince is able to get on with his play.

Here's is where we begin to see what the play-within-the-play is all about. The lower class players are as deeply confused about dramatic illusion as the upper-class lovers had been about their real feelings, which, thanks to the magical manipulations of Oberon and Puck, they are finally able to recognize.

When the upper-class lovers are happily married and looking for some slight diversion before bed-time, they are delighted—more so than they expect— to watch a play in which the actual and imaginary, art and life, are totally confused. What's important here is that both audiences,  the lovers and the larger audience out there in the theatre, are in the same boat.

Plays are designed to draw an audience into its make-believe world so that there are moments when they forget that that they are watching a play.

Watching the clumsy efforts of the Athenian tradesmen as they try to pull off that bit of theatrical magic, we may forget that these clumsy oafs are really professional actors drawing us into another illusion—the illusion of course being that Bottom and his friends really don't know what they are doing. We laugh, not realizing that we've been fooled again.

The fact that A Midsummer Night's Dream has so many layers of dramatic illusion—more than any other play of Shakespeare's—is what makes it so utterly charming.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Trouble With T. S. Eliot

This quotation—"these fragments I have shored against my ruins"— virtually concludes The Waste Land, a poem cobbled together by Ezra Pound out of a collection of fragments that Eliot had written without knowing, it seems, what kind of poem he was trying to write. Pound did, but he had to do some pretty radical editing to make it happen.

For me, all of Eliot's poetry thereafter is fragmentary—unless one shares, as I am unable to do, his belief in the Christian doctrine of incarnation and the eucharist, or his unchristian disdain for the masses of ordinary people. When I read lines like "human kind cannot bear very much reality" (Burnt Norton) or the lines in East Coker describing the "mental emptiness" of the people in the London subway, or the lines (re: the eucharist), "The dripping blood our only drink,/ The bloody flesh our only food," I turn away. Since I cannot share Eliot's beliefs and prejudices, Four Quartets becomes, for me a poem of fragments, like The Waste Land—beautiful fragments, often, like this from East Coker:

Dawn points, and another day
Prepares for heat and silence. Out at sea the dawn wind
Wrinkles and slides.

Or these strange and magical lines from Burnt Norton:

Garlic and sapphires in the mud
Clot the bedded axle-tree.
The trilling wire in the blood
Sings below inveterate scars
And reconciles forgotten wars.
The dance along the artery
The circulation of the lymph
Are figured in the drift of stars
Ascend to summer in the tree
We move above the moving tree
In light upon the figured leaf
And hear upon the sodden floor
Below, the boarhound and boar
Pursue their pattern as before
But reconciled among the stars.

I like these lines, from the beginning of East Coker:

                                                  Now the light falls
Across the open field, leaving the deep lane
Shuttered with branches, dark in the afternoon
Where you lean against a bank while a van passes,
And the deep lane insists on the direction
Into the village, in the electric heat
Hypnotized. In the warm haze the sultry light
Is absorbed, not refracted, by grey stone.
The dahlias sleep in the empty silence
Wait for the early owl.

But the lines that I find most moving and wonderful are the lines about the rose-garden that I discussed, briefly, in my last post. Those lines, which may be about the children that Eliot
never had, remind me of an earlier poem that is probably not very well known nowadays, Marina, which may be about the daughter Eliot never had:

What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands
What water lapping at the bow
And scent of pine and the woodthrush singing through the fog
What images return
O my daughter . . . .

What is this face, less clear and clearer
The pulse in the arm, less strong and stronger—
Given or lent? more distant than stars and nearer than the eye

Whispers and small laughter between leaves and hurrying feet
Under sleep where all the waters meet.

Bowsprit cracked with ice and paint cracked with heat.
I made this, I have forgotten
And remember.

The rigging weak and canvas rotten
Between one June and another September.
Made this unknowing, half conscious, unknown, my own.
The garboard strake leaks, the seams need caulking.
This form, this face, this life
Living to live in a world of time beyond me; let me
Resign my life  for this life, my speech for that unspoken,
The awakened, lips parted, the hope, the new ships.

What seas what shores what granite islands towards my timbers
And woodthrush calling through the fog
My daughter.

The image of "whispers and small laughter beween leaves" will be picked up in Burnt Norton.

Eliot's contempt for ordinary humanity, implicit in that other message of the thrush— "human kind cannot bear very much reality"—will be elaborated on in the other Quartets as well as here, in Burnt Norton:

Here is a place of disaffection
Time before and time after
In a dim light: neither daylight
Investing form with lucid stillness
Turning shadow into transient beauty
With slow rotation suggesting permanence
Nor darkness to purify the soul . . .
                                                Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before and time after.
Eructation of unhealthy souls
Into the faded air, the torpid
Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London, 
Hampstead and Clerkenwell, Campden and Putney,
Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate. Not here
Not here the darkness in this twittering world.

That word "twittering" was prescient.

Do you suppose that Eliot ever felt a flicker of sympathy for those "strained time-ridden faces," or the "unhealthy souls" belching from "unwholesome lungs" into the faded air of this "twittering world"? Not a chance.

You can also hear Eliot's contempt in East Coker when he is describing how people "in the tube" respond when the train

stops too long between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about . . .

or when he is complaining about the shabby state of the "equipment" he must use as a poet—the English language—as it deteriorates "in the general mess of imprecision of feeling/ Undisciplined squads of emotion."

At this point, I want to call Eliot's bluff: what do you mean by precise feelings and how are they related to disciplined squads of emotion? That phrase has military, even totalitarian overtones; who or what is to do the disciplining? Who gets to to define the precision of our feelings? Some sort of Jesuitical super-state? (We know that Eliot, like Pound, had fascist sympathies, at least for a while.) Do we even begin to understand how feelings are related to emotions and vice-versa? And what does all this have to do with the deterioration of a language—even if we grant Eliot's assumption that such a thing is possible? For me, Eliot's language at this point is full to bursting with imprecise feelings and undisciplined emotions.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

T. S. Eliot's Rose Garden

Consider these lines from the conclusion of The Waste Land:

Datta [give]: what have we given?
My friend, blood shaking my heart
The awful daring of a moment's surrender
Which an age of prudence can neve retract
By this, and this only, we have existed
Which is not to be found in our obituaries
Or in memories draped by the beneficent spider
Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor
In our empty rooms

Dayadhvam [sympathize]: I have heard the key
Turn in the door once and turn once only
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison . . .

Eliot obligingly provides a foot-note from F. H. Bradley's book Appearance And Reality for these last four lines:  "My external sensations are no less private to myself than are my thoughts and feelings. In either case my experience falls within my own circle, a  circle closed on the outside; and, with all its elements alike, every sphere is opaque to the others which surround it. . . . In brief, regarded as an existence which appears in a soul, the whole world for each is peculiar and private to that soul."

Which was it to be?  Can we connect with others or can't we? Eliot must have thought long and hard—agonized perhaps—over this question but it's pretty clear where he ended up: in his own private prison, or "citadel" as Lyndall Gordon calls it:

"Eliot's personality was self-centered enough to assume that the world and its vicissitudes—its women, its wars, seasons, crowds—existed as signals for his private conduct. The isolation and the absence of signs . . . brewed a certain wilfulness . . . .
  "[He] passed his youth walled-in by shyness and vast ambition. His adult life may be seen as a series of adventures from the citadel of his self in search of some great defining experience. He made expeditions across a perilous gap that divided him from the great world, and ventured into society, into marriage, into religious communion. He tried to maintain the polite, even curiosity of an explorer far from home, but each time had to withdraw—shuddering from the contact—to his citadel, where he would labor to record, as precisely as possible, his strange encounters." (Quoted from William Pritchard's Lives of The Modern Poets, 1980.)

You can see why it was so important for Eliot to separate the "man who suffers from the mind that creates." And you can see why such a doctrine might make for a certain heartlessness in his poetry. But I can't leave it at that, because some of the poetry he wrote after he caved in, converted to Anglo-Catholicism and became a fervent believer in the incarnation and the eucharist is, nevertheless, both moving and beautiful. Burnt Norton, the first of the Four Quartets, is one of these.

Though I am not the least bit interested in what Eliot has to say about time past and time present, the still point of the moving world, incarnation, the end which is also his beginning etc., or the dance that he goes on and on about, a might-have-been that is deeply considered at the beginning of Burnt Norton is worth paying attention to. Here are the relevant lines:

What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point toward one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.
                                 But to what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves
I do no know.  
                                 Other echoes
Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?
Quick said the bird, find them, find them,
Round the corner. Through the first gate,
Into our first world, shall we follow
The deception of the thrush? Into our first world.
There they were, dignified, invisible,
Moving without pressure, over the dead leaves
In the autumn heat, through the vibrant air,
And the bird called, in response to
The unheard music hidden in the shrubbery . . .
There they were as our guests, accepted and accepting.
So we moved, and they, in a formal pattern,
Along the empty alley, into the box circle,
To look down into the drained pool.
Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged,
And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,
And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly,
The surface glittered out of heart of light,
And they were behind us, reflected in the pool.
Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty.
Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.

And the poem ends with the laughter of those children, hidden in the foliage:

Sudden in the shaft of sunlight
Even while the dust moves
There rises the hidden laughter
Of children in the foliage
Quick now, here, now, always—
Ridiculous the waste sad time
Stretching before and after.

T. S. Eliot married Vivien Haigh-Wood in 1914 and lived with her until 1932. They could have had children but either decided not to or found that they couldn't. Here is how the poem puts it:

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.

I guess you can read these lines any way you want.  To me they seem the most nearly personal lines that Eliot ever wrote—as if the man who suffers had become very close to the mind that creates.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

"Fear In A Handful Of Dust": Poetry For The Hot, Dry World To Come (with apologies to T. S. Eliot)

The phrase, "Fear in a handful of dust," and the paragraph that precedes it comes as, you probably know, from the first section of The Wasteland, which was published shortly after the First World War. The rest of the material comes from the final, prophetic, section of that poem. What was prophetic metaphor in 1922 is beginning  to seem, unhappily, as if  it might become a more or less literal representation of the world that our grandchildren will inhabit in the not so very distant future.

"What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.  Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust. . . .

Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were water we would stop and drink
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think
Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand
If there were only water amongst the rock
Dead mountain of carious teeth that cannot spit
Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit
There is not even silence in the mountains
But dry sterile thunder without rain
There is not even solitude in the mountains
But red sullen faces sneer and snarl
From doors of mudcracked houses
                                            If there were water
And no rock
If there were rock
And also water
And water
A spring
A pool among the rock
If there were the sound of water only
Not the cicada
And dry grass singing
But the sound of water over a rock
Where the hermit thrush sings in the pine trees
Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop
But there is no water . . . .

What is that sound high in the air
Murmur of maternal lamentation
Who are those hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth
Ringed by the flat horizon only
What is the city over  the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London

A woman drew her long black hair out tight
And fiddled whisper music on those strings
And bats with baby faces in the violet light
Whistled, and beat their wings
And crawled head downward down a blackened wall
And upside down in air were towers
Tolling reminiscent bells, that kept the hours
And voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells."