|Christopher Plummer as Prospero|
Are any of these things, or indeed the external world at all, ultimately important as we lay dying? I have a family member who entered hospice a few days ago and who, I think it's fair to say, has been a "good" person; she's never intentionally hurt anyone and has tried to be a good mother while living a life of which the conventional wisdom would approve. And yet, as far as I can tell, she has never had a single thought to spend investigating the inner world, the realities of her own psyche, or the immaterial realm in general. Her focus has always been the world around her, her own material well being and that of her family. That is, after all, how most people live, why should she be any different? The irony is that now she is dying, and like numberless others have and will, she spends much of her waking hours seeing and talking to things and beings that other people don't see, while failing to notice the flesh and blood family sitting at her bedside. The focus of her attention is increasingly caught up with her inner experience and the immaterial realm, while her attention to the external world recedes more and more each hour. So why, then, does the material realm hold so much sway throughout our lives when at the end, it seems to matter not all?
Now I must, because in some not-small respects I am his creation (more accurately, his grand-creation since his creation, Falstaff, was my tutor), submit to Shakespeare; and to particularly what is generally regarded to be his last play, The Tempest. The conventionally understood history is that the play's protagonist, Prospero, is analogous to Shakespeare himself: both are giving up their enchanting arts, their respective renunciations coming at the height of their powers. Prospero has become a powerful, even fearsome mage whose magical powers seem to know no bounds, just as Shakespeare's creative and artistic powers seemed equally unlimited. In fact in the early 17th century, because of their great powers of enchantment and illusion, the word art applied to magic as well as to theater. Even so, Shakespeare still takes pains to portray Prospero as a rationalist and a "good magician" whose aims are not in conflict with those of God or the church. After all, it was only a little more than a decade earlier that Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for promulgating his magic-al theories because he grew careless (or tired) of making a distinction between magic that was not a threat to the church and magic that was. The irony is that Bruno believed that the root power in magic was love, and that memory was a key element in realizing magic in the material world. Two elements the church makes much of a fuss about: the love of Christ and memory in the form of ritual.
Love and memory; lineaments that exist not in the external, material world, but in the inner, immaterial one. These are the qualities that Prospero most concerns himself with as the play proceeds; he gives up his magical practices, which can alter and control the external world, and instead focuses on his own inner world by engaging memory and it's soothing balm, forgiveness, and the source of the greatest magic of all, love.
Weak masters though ye be, I have bedimmed
The noontide sun, called forth the mutinous winds,And ’twixt the green sea and the azured vaultSet roaring war—to th' dread rattling thunderHave I given fire, and rifted Jove’s stout oak
Even though they have made him startlingly powerful in the material world, and he might have used them to extract revenge upon his treacherous brother (whose political treason exiled Prospero on Bermuda) Prospero abandons the external, magical arts and breaks his staff and sinks his book in the unreachable depths of the ocean. From now on his focus will be on developing the inner resources for living a purpose filled life of true meaning, of bliss, and a genuine amore-propre, all of which come from an emergent, opening experience of the heart that, at the same time, propels one more fully and more consciously into the world, infusing joy and meaning into it, and not the other way around. It's a move from the inside out, and as such wealth, fame, and responsibilities of all kinds may be the result, but they are not the things sought after in the first place in order to bring one happiness. If they should then occur, they do so as the by-products of heartful living. Such a connection to life and its satisfactions cannot be constructed from the outside in, but grows organically from the inside out. It's a reality Prospero has known all along but has resisted, and when his daughter Miranda begins to see the world without the material magic her father imposed upon her, she is astonished:With his own bolt;the strong-based promontoryHave I made shake, and by the spurs plucked upThe pine and cedar; graves at my commandHave waked their sleepers, oped, and let 'em forthBy my so potent art. But this rough magicI here abjure, and when I have requiredSome heavenly music, which even now I do,To work mine end upon their senses thatThis airy charm is for, I’ll break my staff,Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,And deeper than did ever plummet soundI’ll drown my book.
|Prospero and Miranda|
Miranda: O' wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beautious mankind is! O, brave new world
That has such people in 't!
"'Tis new to thee;" Prospero has been long aware, at some level, of the wonderous regenerative and reshaping power of love. From a heartful, loving place he instructs all present in the proper and healing use of memory saying, Let us not burden our remembrances with a heaviness that's gone. Anyone who pays attention to one's own life understands that what we give our attention to is what we create, and no one knows this better than Prospero, so he instructs us to forgo a focus on the past and its disappointments and wounds. But before we turn our attention entirely to the new, we must deal with our own shadow, our own imperfections, our own weaknesses of character, our own misdeeds. Again, Prospero is showing the way when he says (with some emotional difficulty, I imagine): This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine. Forgiveness is not fully accomplished unless we also forgive ourselves, and in order to do that we must acknowledge, often in pain, what exactly it is that we must forgive ourselves for. Then we are free to create a beautiful life, no matter what it may materially appear to be, for the focus is not on the external but rather is on the inner. Prospero says he will retire when he arrives home in Milan where "Every third thought shall be my grave." Ever the teacher, he knows that a beautiful life cannot be rightly called such if one does not consider death. My relative never once thought of her own death, I suspect; at least not without the accompanying existential terror that made such thought experiments very brief indeed. But the contemplation of death, of one's mortality, lends perspective and focus to the task of living in the most satisfying, meaningful way possible. The ancient Greeks knew this; they developed a notion called kallos thanatos, a beautiful death; a thought that encompassed not only dying itself, but considered the manner of living life beautifully, meaningfully, consciously, and heartfully right up to the very moment of death to be one of the most important goals of life and therefore, the essential constituents of a beautiful death.Prospero: 'Tis new to thee.
I suppose it is one of the griefs of conscious living that those whom we care about aren't always able to live life inside out. Simply calling it "inside out" properly gives the suggestion of something being not quite right, or uncomfortably twisted up. The truth is that life is often frightening and difficult, and requires living with pain and uncertainty; but the refusal of a heartful path means that one brings the pain and fear with them to the abyss and it makes one's death a pitiable and terrifying event, devoid of all meaning. Instead why not embrace the tempestuousness of life and create a life of meaning and purpose? It is after all a choice we may all make, it is within the power of each one of us and is a choice which, if made with intention and resolve, the world receives and conspires with us to bring about a life that will culminate in the kallos thanatos, and any individual kallos thanatos brings beauty to the entire world.
That is thy charge. Then to the elements
Be free, and fare thou well.