W.H. Auden’s The Sea and The Mirror: An Existencial Interpretation of Shakespeare’s characters in The Tempest

While creating and planning The Sea and The Mirror: A Commentary on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” W. H. Auden did not desire to limit or confine himself to revealing the archetypal symbolism of the plot and characters in The Tempest or to explaining Shakespeare’s philosophical implications which deal with the Neo-Platonic philosophy. He was interested in some of the dramatic devices and ideas, especially in the concept of the purgatorial storm at sea and in the motif of the spiritual quest of the characters and their “sea change” or change of heart. Auden, therefore, disregarded Shakespeare’s sixteenth-century classical Neo-Platonic theories and replaced them with his own twentieth-century Christian existential view. He maintained Shakespeare’s characters and the spiritual quest motif in order to create his own original play. Thus, The Sea and The Mirror is not an explanation of The Tempest, or even a tribute, but is rather Auden’s own reinterpretation of Shakepeare’s play in light of his own aesthetic and metaphysical views.
Auden begins The Sea and The Mirror at the moment when Shakespeare’s play leaves the enchanted island, or the stage of literature, and reveals the characters who are caught up once more in the sea of life. Auden shows us that the dramatis personae’s work is only half done; now the illusion of the sea-change or self-realization has to find a foothold in the real world beyond the proscenium. Auden’s main questions are: how is it possible to know the truth through art and live in this truth; how does man become an integrated self; and how does he remain true to himself?
His major concern is the existential journey which each character and each man in the audience must travel in order to become aware of his true self. Auden also probes into the relationship of the creative imagination to the problems of existence, the relationship between the sea of life and the mirror of art, between the actual world and the hypothetical world called art. The first is bound by life and death; the second is outside of time and infinitely variable. Auden needed a symbolic framework to present his abstractions; thus, The Sea and The Mirror is not really an illuminating symbolic interpretation, but a base for Auden to employ his own themes. Since Auden’s and Shakespeare’s distinct philosophical patterns are essential to the understanding of both themes and characters in Auden’s The Sea and The Mirror, I will elaborate upon the basic theories of both Neo-Platonism and existentialism in the introduction, first with Shakespeare’s philosophy, then Auden’s.
Shakespeare was no systematic or scholarly philosopher, but he possessed an accurate knowledge of the basic principles of sixteenth-century philosophical systems, such as Christianity and Neo-Platonism. The Neo-Platonic concepts, transmitted by tradition, persisted in the Renaissance mind as a heritage more or less unconsciously absorbed, just as the Protestant ethic has been unconsciously absorbed by twentieth-century Americans. Shakespeare was like all other men of his age who were immersed in the physical, mental, and spiritual life of the sixteenth century. Like everyone else, he knew about the hierarchy of Neo-Platonic daemons which control the activities of nature and serve as mediators between gods and men, and he understood the difference between theurgy (white magic) and goety (black magic). Shakespeare, as a dramatic artist, merely integrated the philosophical principles of the Neo-Platonic system with his dramatic materials. This assimilation can clearly be seen in The Tempest. Therefore, it is necessary to include background information and to explain terms and concepts related to the philosophy in order that the reader may later see that there is a definite Neo-Platonic pattern in The Tempest and that Shakespeare’s Prospero is a theurgist desiring complete union with the gods. The explanation is also necessary in order that the reader may see how Auden changes Shakespeare’s philosophy and the nature of Prospero to fit his own themes.
Neo-Platonism is basically a “spiritual monism.” It claims that the spirit or divinity resides in and unites all things of the universe. Its basic impulse is man’s return to God through the divine principle of reason. It asserts three levels of reality: that of non-Being, Nature, vegetable existence, sensible things; that of Being, Intellect, Plato’s Ideas; and that of Beyond-Being, the One, the Good. It is with this last that union is to be achieved. The fundamental concept is unity, and the philosophy is based on the assumption that there is Truth. One must awaken from the sleep of this world into superconsciousness. This highest level of awareness is uncommunicable by the intellect; the Neo-Platonic journey to the One is foremost an upward journey of the soul.
Neo-Platonism conceives of a world as emanating from God through several successive stages of activity. According to Plotinus, the highest level is God the Absolute, the transcendent One, unchangeable in essence. It expresses itself in a second sphere called the Rational Soul. The third is the Universal Soul, which receives the world of Ideas from the Spirit. As active principle, it creates the cosmos, or world of sense. The fourth is the formative powers of nature, individual souls of men, and the bright gods. Neo-Platonism conceives the human soul as without the presence of essential good; good may be attained only through participation and habit. As it descends into generations, the human soul acquires such a composite nature that it is capable of understanding and communing with all created things. It possesses a life and energy similar to all the forces which produced it. This philosophy also points to the fact that man is endowed with two souls. The lower soul is produced and governed by the world of sense. It is mortal and cannot exist in separation from the body. It is caught in Fate, from which it has no escape. The higher soul is derived from the intelligible gods. It is eternal and can transcend the world which Fate rules. It is capable of uniting with the gods and participating in their energy. The last level of the hierarchy is the daemons, ministers of Fate or Destiny. Their essence is a mundane nature. Their immediate function is to rule over and guard the elements of the universe, all individual bodies, and to conduct all natural phenomena in accordance with the will of the gods. Daemons are also in an hierarchy, each rank having control of all inferior ranks. There are the intellectual substances (celestial and ethereal), the rational substances (aerial), and the irrational substances (aquatic, terrestrial, and subterranian) .” Scholars of Neo-platonism generally agree that daemons are able to assume at will whatever forms please their imagination.
The terms theurgy and goety are also prevalent among Neo-Platonists. Theurgy, white magic, is basically a glorified theology; it conceives of a universe perfectly harmonized and unified by an all-pervading spirit, and emphasizes the splendid dignity and powers of the human soul in its alliance with all reality. It occurs whenever men have attempted to converse with the divinity in any form, and may be called a science when an experienced priest is enabled, by means of incantations or other ceremonial tech niques, to energize in mystic union with divine natures or to control other beneficient spiritual intelligences in the working of miraculous deeds. Goety, in contrast, is a black art, the lowest manifestation of the sacerdotal science. Its evil priest produces magic results by disordering the sympathetic relationships of nature or by employing the power of irrational spirits to wicked ends. Christianity wipes out the distinctions between these terms, reduces the irrational, rational, and intellectual daemons of the Neo-Platonic system to the status of fallen angels or devils, and sweeps goety and theurgy together into Black magic. Yet Shakespeare was able to read works dealing with pure theurgy before they were contaminated by Christian interpretation. He had access to the Life of Plotinus, De Mysteriis, and the De sacrificio et magia of Proclus, which contain the purest and most complete expression of theurgical principles. Thus, Shakespeare adopts this sacerdotal science, under the influence of Renaissance thought. He no longer employs the Christian myth but creates another world, dominated by classical myth and a purely pagan philosophy. Shakespeare uses this myth and concept as the philosophical pattern in The Tempest, and creates Prospero to be a theurgest of the highest rank.
Instead of following Shakespeare’s philosophical pattern, W. H. Auden uses twentieth-century ideas drawn from existential thinkers in order to develop his characters and to carry them beyond the plot action of Shakespeare’s play. To understand completely Auden’s existential philosophy and themes in The Sea and The Mirror, it may be helpful to explain Auden’s mental and spiritual progress. During 1937- 1939, Auden believed in a kind of humanistic ideology; but after 1941, Auden changed his secular humanistic belief to that of a Christian existential view of the world. He progressed from cynicism to mysticism, from distrust to a doggedly religious hope for man. He discovered that humanism failed to produce universal peace and that man without help could not produce this peace. In an untitled essay in a collection edited by James A. Pike, Auden relates three personal experiences which transformed his beliefs. When he visited Spain during the Civil War, he saw what totalitarianism and war were actually doing to the people. All the churches were closed, and priests were seldom seen since they were not allowed to minister to their parishioners. Auden left Spain profoundly shocked at this repression of individual liberty. Next, he met an Anglican layman, Charles Williams, and for the first time he felt in the presence of personal sanctity. Then Auden started reading Kierkegaard, a Christian existentialist, and began again going to church. These events brought him in 1941 to a new affirmation about Christianity. All of Auden’s work which he produced after wards, whether it be poems, essays, lectures, reveal the ideas of Christian existentialism and emphasize the individual soul, its suffering and arrival at faith, and the importance of freedom and moral choice. The existentialist influence is strongly evident in The Sea and The Mirror; in fact, Auden turns Shakespeare’s The Tempest into an existential parable with Prospero as the primary pilgrim who is on his journey of “becoming.” At this point then, it is necessary to explain the essential beliefs of existentialism and the theories of Kieregaard in order to understand completely Auden’s philosophical pattern in The Sea and The Mirror and the journey on which he sends each individual character.
Existentialism, a modern philosophy, marks a radical departure from Neo-Platonism and other classical philosophies which consider existence as a secondary phenomenon. Existentialism concentrates instead on the existing individual as the ultimate reality. As a victim of the twentieth century, Auden was aware of the problems of modern man in society and of his continuing isolation. After World War I, the world was engulfed by materialism and greed, technological and scientific discoveries, corporations and bureaucracies. Swift changes swept away traditions and ancient roots Man concerned himself with externals and secular ideas; orthodox religion no longer was important in the lives of the majority. The world turned absurd, without meaning, purpose, or justice. Thus, modern man became alienated, isolated, and homeless, a stranger to God, to the universe, to nature, and to hiraself. He was consumed with doubts, skepticism, loneliness, and despair. At this time of spiritual poverty and inner anxiety, Sartre, Camus, and Kierkegaard formulated their own philosophy for man, a philosophy of existentialism, both Christian and atheistic.
The existentialist sees the enigma of existence. He is aware of the absurdity and meaninglessness of existence, and he realizes that life has no meaning unless he gives it meaning. For the existentialist, the central truth of man’s existence is his freedom. Existential freedom requires a man first to admit that he is a being without an inherent or transcendent meaning. While man is aware of his limita tions, he is also aware of the unlimited possibilities to improve. This awareness is the source of his angst or anxiety. Man is free, limited only by himself and not restricted by any absolute principles. After a man has encountered his freedom, he is faced with the existential choice. He can choose to accept his freedom and live in good faith. Such a choice raeans that the individual is continually aware “that he alone determines the values by which he lives, that he is not endowed with a ready-made self or nature but must be constantly making himself.” He is nothing; he is always about to be whatever he chooses.
A man does not have to choose good faith. He can also choose to deny his lonely freedom. Such a choice is essentially a denial of the individual’s responsibility for himself and for his fellow man.
Due to his avid reading of the works of Kierkegaard, W. H. Auden incorporated many theories of this Christian existentialist into his own writings. Kierkegaard’s own existence was not at all a matter of speculation, but a reality in which he was personally and passionately involved. For Kierkegaard, this decisive encounter with the Self lies in the Either/Or of choice. In a rhetorical moment he exclaims: “Either/Or is the word at which the folding doors fly open and the ideals appear—0 blessed sightl Either/Or is the pass which admits to the Absolute—God be praised! Yea, Either/Or is the key to heaven.” . . . “Both—and is the way to hell.” Any man who chooses or is forced to choose decisively experiences his own existence beyond the mirror of thought. He encounters the Self that he is, not in the detachment of thought, but in the involvement and pathos of choice. As Kierkegaard proclaims, “If you will understand me aright, I should like to say that in making a choice it is not so much a question of choosing the right as of the energy, the earnestness, the pathos with which one chooses.”
W. H. Auden also incorporated into his own writings Kierkegaard’s three levels or modes of existence—the aesthetic, ethical, and religious. The child is the perfect and complete aesthete, for the child lives solely in the pleasure and pain of the moment. In a stricter sense, the aesthete is someone who chooses to live solely for privileged and pleasurable moments and is driven into a panicky flight from the prospect of boredom. This flight, which is a flight from himself, becomes his form of desperation and, therefore, of despair. The intellectual aesthete is the contemplative person who tries to stand outside life and behold it as a spectacle. This aesthetic attitude can only be a partial, never a complete attitude toward life. By an act of courage, the neutral aesthete must face his choices and begin to exist ethically. The fundamental choice, says Kierkegaard, is not the choice between rival values of good and bad, but the choice by which we summon good and bad into existence for ourselves. The last movement for man is to the religious level, which encompasses the aesthetic and ethical levels. In certain crises, man is brought face to face with the religious center of his existence. By experiencing this crisis with its fear, trembling, and despair, man begins to be a total Self. Kierkegaard describes Despair as the sickness unto death, the sickness in which we seek to escape from ourselves. We are all in despair, consciously or unconsciously, according to Kierkegaard, and every means we have of coping with this despair, short of religion, is either unsuccessful or demonical. To reach the religious level, man must accept the absurd, resign himself completely, and make the leap of faith. In resignation, he makes a renunciation of everything. Kierkegaard explains that by this movement, “what I gain is myself in my eternal consciousness, in blessful agreement with my love for the Eternal Being. By faith I make renunciation of nothing; on the contrary, by faith I acquire everything, precisely in the sense in which it is said that he who has faith like a grain of mustard can remove mountains.”
Like Kierkegaard, Auden believes that modern man must confront his choice, accept the human position, make the leap of faith, and trust in God. Without the leap of faith, man will remain in a state of anxiety which will plague him at all times. Modern man seldom confronts anxiety consciously, but it constantly surrounds him, perverting his daily actions, hopes, and contemplations. For Auden, anxiety exists in two forms, the dread of failure and the fear of time. The dread of failure is man’s sense of doom and loss. He dreads the failure of free choice, yet insists upon his right to choose failure. He feels terror at the loss of his identity and at the discovery that his identity is inadequate. So he attempts isolation, refuses to know and accept himself, or hides in the strength of “Collective Man.” Man’s modern anxiety in time can be seen clearly in Auden’s New Year Letter and For The Time Being. Man agonizes over the temporality of human existence. He dreads the ticking clock, but he is always aware of its presence. Auden also says that man’s anxiety in time is his present anxiety over himself in relation to his past and his parents (Freud), his present anxiety over himself in relation to his future and his neighbors (Marx), and his present anxiety over himself in relation to eternity and God (Kierkegaard). Most of Auden’s characters refuse to recognize the “now” and accept the human condition. Therefore, they are constantly in a state of anxiety. Only by religious faith can man conquer the temptation to “idolatry,” to escape the problems of finiteness, anxiety, and freedom. In The Sea and The Mirror, Auden shouts that human resources must first be found inadequate, that the leap will not take place until, having confronted our predicament, we find the darkness visible.
Therefore, in disregarding Shakespeare’s Neo-Platonic philosophy, Auden uses in his commentary on The Tempest the Christian existential philosophy of becoming. He views man as an unfinished and conscious creature in contrast to the perfected and unconscious animal. Man continues to be a social creature, but his decision to commit himself to become involved is a sign of his growing to perfection. In The Tempest, Auden discovered all except three of Shakespeare’s characters traveling a dialectical path from the aesthetic to the ethical or the religious existence. In The Sea and The Mirror, he once again sets the characters traveling inwardly to realize who they are and what they will become. In fact, the whole action of the poem symbolizes a process of self-awareness. Even Auden’s interpretation of Prospero’s course of actions represents Kierkegaard’s categories of becoming. His enchantment is the aesthetic level. This aesthetic life always moves to a world of being where men, all mutability gone, might sing like golden nightingales in a life that moves but never changes. So Auden first describes Prospero as a passive observer, completely detached from reality in his garden of Eden, not as a noble theurgist as Shakespeare portrays him, as one who has achieved oneness with the gods. Prospero’s forgiveness represents the ethical level, and his abdication represents the religious. The three divisions of Auden’s poem are also concerned with man’s search for self-fulfillm.ent and self-awareness. In the first, Prospero gives Ariel his freedom, since his spiritual quest takes him beyond a reliance upon art. In the “Supporting Cast,” the other characters celebrate their regeneration. Each has been reconciled first with himself and then with Prospero. Antonio is the only one who can not experience a “sea change,” since his pride as man is beyond the reach of either the aesthetic or ethical level. In part III, “Caliban to the Audience,” Caliban addresses the audience about his role and Ariel’s. He discusses what is expected from art in its treatment of reality and of the rival worlds of the flesh and the spirit. Primarily Auden wishes the audience, Us, to participate in the moral vision of the play. We become the main character of the poem. Auden demands us to involve ourselves in what Prospero has brought to the characters of the play and to become our true selves, like Prospero. Otherwise, we will be another Antonio, retreating, like him, back into our own narrow reality, not transcending it.



Publicado por Adriana Scarpin

Bibliófila, ailurófila, cinéfila e anarcafeminista. Really. Podem me encontrar também aqui: https://linktr.ee/adrianascarpin

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