Archive for June 16th, 2014

Prospero’s island: not monarchy, but despotism

Monday, June 16th, 2014
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piotrbookPhilosopher Piotr Nowak was already installed at Vienna’s Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen by the time I arrived for my stay as a fellow in 2008 – alas, an all-too-brief a sojourn! I had just returned from six weeks of research in Poland, and he was the only Polish fellow at IWM below the rank of rector.  He was hunkered on the floor below mine in the lavish white suites that we called offices, overlooking the canal. So Piotr and I visited and chatted between floors, or at the communal lunches provided for the fellows.

At the time, he was working on something about Hannah Arendt‘s notion of radical evil, and recommended some reading on that subject. He also introduced me to the works of Leszek Kołakowski.  The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman wrote of Piotr: “His writings usually contain a challenge: so many mysterious voids of ignorance still lurk in the familiar sphere of our acquired knowledge; and also extend an invitation: so many virgin lands, omitted on our overcrowded map of knowledge, are still waiting to be explored …”

So naturally, I was interested to read that he had just written a book in English on an unexpected subject, The Ancients and Shakespeare on Time, published by the intriguing Value Inquiry Book Series. He ponders a range of questions. What kind of place is Prospero’s island? I remember one Stanford professor – was it David Riggs? – who suggested Shakespeare’s inspiration was another verdant island – Ireland, with its strong tradition of household bards and music. Or perhaps the New World, a place that had a near-mythical status in Jacobean England.

Piotr’s Central European perspective is evident in the darker version of the island he offers on Prospero’s domain (he translated from the Polish himself):

It’s climate is warm and humid, which favours decay and decomposition. However, this is not of primary importance. The first thing that comes to mind in this respect is that it is a place where anything can be done to a fellow human being, including killing, inducing insanity, sentencing to forced labour, as well as arranging relationships and dissolving them. This can hardly be called monarchy – it is rather a sphere of arbitrary absolutism.

nowak

He, too, contains islands.

On Prospero’s island, even the laws of physics work back to front. A supposed God, Prospero plays with nature – he creates and destroys as he pleases, as well as strikes with lightning and uproots pines or cedar trees. He affects other people’s perception of the reality which he himself shapes according to his will. “Poor souls, they perished,” Miranda worries, bewailing the shipwrecked. “Not a hair perished,” we soon learn from Ariel. It is only Prospero who knows the truth. What is more important and terrifying, however, is that the magician wields power over the dead, whom he can resurrect at will, though we never learn what he does with them later on – perhaps he even kills them again. Finally, he gathers both his old and new adversaries. If Prospero encourages revolt among the latter, it is only for one purpose: so that they could witness in the nearest future the consequences of political freedom that was granted to the working classes. Two drunkards and one monster, liberated from all authority, fall victim to their own unbridled passions and bad habits. … However, he does not kill them, bcause he has already grasped that all power and knowledge, if it wants to be what it is, must have its limits. This is the moment we learn about the remarkable wisdom of Prospero. …

At the same time, he becomes aware that his wisdom cannot be inherited. … The young do not wish to remember other people’s stories, because they want to create their own – there is nothing strange or surprising about it. Meanwhile, old age – which mercilessly threatens everyone, accompanied by an invariable softening in the head – takes Prospero’s imperiousness by storm. He gradually moves into the shadow and is inclined to write down the story of his youth. Thus, he prepares a book-long interview, asking for applause, which he finally receives. But then he freezes into a monument. For some time, the young light candles for him and bring him flowers. Later, however, they simply forget.

In his memory…

Sounds like he is remembering a particular production of The Tempest – I don’t remember anything like the final scene he describes in any production I have seen. I also didn’t remember this lovely excerpt he includes from W.H. Auden‘s “The Sea and the Mirror”:

If age, which is certainly
Just as wicked as youth, look any wiser,
It is only that youth is still able to believe
It will get away with anything, while age
Knows only too well that it has got away with nothing.

The book is dedicated to the memory of the man he encouraged me to meet at IWM, one reason among several to be grateful to Piotr: the institute’s rector and one of Poland’s leading scholars,  Krzysztof Michalski.