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In terms of technocultural criticism, there’s nothing too deep here, but it still may be of interest as a piece that does not deal explicitly with technology but can certainly give rise to some thoughts about the interplay of technology and human interaction.

The Imperial Colonel (by Franz Kafka, trans. Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins)

One is ashamed to say by what means the imperial colonel governs our little town in the mountains. His few soldiers could be disarmed immediately, if we so wished, and help for him, even supposing he could summon it—but how could he do that?—would not come for days, indeed for weeks. And so he is utterly dependent on our obedience, but he does not try either to enforce it by tyrannical means or to wheedle it out of us by cordiality. And so why do we tolerate his hated rule? There is no doubt about it: only because of his gaze. When one enters his study—a century ago it was the council chamber of our elders—there he sits at his desk, in uniform, pen in hand. Ceremonial is something he does not care for, and any form of playacting far less, and so he does not go on writing, as he might, letting the visitor wait, but instantly interrupts his work and leans back, though he does keep his pen in his hand. And so, leaning back, his left hand in his trouser pocket, he gazes at the visitor. The petitioner has the impression that the colonel sees more than merely him, the unknown person who has emerged from the crowd for a little while, for why else should the colonel scrutinize him so closely, and long, and in silence? Nor is it a keen, probing, penetrating gaze, such as might be directed at an individual person; it is a nonchalant, roving, and yet steady gaze, a gaze with which one might, for instance, observe the movements of a crowd in the distance. And this long gaze is continuously accompanied by an indefinable smile, which seems to be now irony, now dreamy reminiscence.

On Nighthawks

Edward Hopper’s painting, based on Ernest Hemingway’s superb short story (probably the best thing I read in the class in which it was assigned last semester, when I first read it), makes a compelling visual statement about how the influx of electricity into people’s everyday lives has changed their fabric. Here we see a new type of loneliness: that which hides not in solitary darkness but seeks out Hemingway’s “clean, well-lighted place” (which fends off, with its light, the Nada). The loneliness is, granted, apparently only the one man’s, but it is precisely in contrast to the other figures in the painting that he stands out so much. Despite the physical nearness, he is at a great remove. He himself is half covered in shadow, while the happy couple cheerfully wiling away the hours of night, as well as the barkeep, are in the full light. The outside, too, shows the way in which the dark is still the dominant force, but that it is being held at bay here by the electric light of the bar. The street behind the couple is dark. The painting thus shows two different moods at work: the increasingly alienated loneliness of the one man, but also the potential comfort that the electrified bar promises to those wayfaring through the outer dark. The barkeep himself is dressed in white—he himself is part of the light and cheer the place exudes (or tries to).

No doubt, Hopper’s appreciation of Hemingway’s story was (as it would likely be to any one of us) enhanced by his firsthand experience of such scenes. By the time the painting was done (1942) electricity was no longer new, but (as is also true today) its presence and effect on things could still seem strange and jarring. It seems fair to say that part of us is hardwired (electric language again… can’t escape it) to expect night to be dark and quiet, the time to sleep, or in any case not be as public or social as we are throughout the day. Murakami Haruki’s short novel After Dark deals with this contrast between what night should mean for the human animal and what, in our modern world, it actually does. This is not a moral point (the “should” is meant to be explanatory, not imperative), but one that tries to clarify the strangeness, the otherness, of the time one spends in the electrified city at night. The illusion of day that the bar provides is just that, an illusion, not day itself. People act differently at night (to put it very broadly—too broadly, but it’ll do for the purposes of this post) and now that fact is no longer hidden in the shadows of night, but illuminated by electricity.

“Art is the expression of feeling. The artist is distinguished from the non-artist by the fact that he can also express what he feels. He can do so in a variety of forms. Some by images; others by sound; still others by marble—or also in historical forms. The statesman is an artist, too. The people are for him what stone is for the sculptor. Leader and masses are as little of a problem to each other as color is a problem for the painter. Politics are the plastic arts of the state as painting is the plastic art of color. Therefore politics without the people or against the people are nonsense. To transform a mass into a people and a people into a state—that has always been the deepest sense of a genuine political task.”

This quotation from Joseph Goebbels’ novel Michael is yet another example of the modern technological mindset. In a time when progress is valued over tradition, the purpose of technological work is advancement, transformation. Goebbels, not surprisingly, explains how such a mindset can apply to very many things, not just objects; or, to be more precise, objects are not limited to the inanimate. Human beings, too, can become someone else’s tools or materials, primarily (Goebbels argues) that of politicians. This passage should bring to mind a somewhat similar figure: Shakespeare’s Prospero. For him, too (ex-statesman that he was), people were malleable material. Prospero worked for what he believed would be positive change, granted (I do not know enough about Goebbels to specify whether he believed the same), but he believed that it was within his rights and power to proceed as he did. It is also important to remember that Prospero’s magic was called his “art,” and Goebbels compares the art of politics to that of traditional types (painting, musicmaking, sculpting).

The case of Jay Gatsby is similar but slightly more complicated. Gatsby, too, is certain that he has the right to manipulate the people around him to achieve his own ends, sometimes noxiously so (as evidenced by Nick Farraday’s initial unwillingness to do Gatsby an unspecified, mysterious favor). Through his hard work he will take Daisy away from her husband Tom and, he expects, be happy. Likewise, Prospero works his art to regain his lost position (which desire is foremost: the moral aspects of his work are necessarily part of the plan, but essentially secondary), and Goebbels too writes that art, be it of politics or anything else, “is the expression of feeling” and elevates the artist above others “by the fact that he can also express what he feels.”

What makes Jay Gatsby different, however, is that he does not quite strike one as having a character like Prospero’s or Goebbels’; despite his idiosyncrasies, he is more sensitive than either of them. He has been deluded into self-righteous conviction by the atmosphere of the society in which he has lived. For it, too, far louder than any individual could, cries of unlimited progress and bountiful happiness ever ahead—ever ahead and yet accessible. This ideology is communicated also through technology. We have already discussed in class the shift in thought from the guiding metaphor of the clock to that of the train; in Fitzgerald’s novel we have an example of the technologically-based spread of ideology in action:

“Outside the wind was loud and there was a faint flow of thunder along the Sound. All the lights were going on in West Egg now; the electric trains, men-carrying, were plunging home through the rain from New York. It was the hour of a profound human change, and excitement was generating on the air” (95).

Although compelling on its own, it is especially telling that this passage occurs at the end of Chapter V, when Gatsby and Daisy are reunited and it appears to Gatsby that his future—his happiness—is made. The fulfillment of his desire is inextricably tied to the technology around him. The machines and lights encourage the belief that the same power and force of forward motion can be harnessed in our human lives as well; but, of course, this is not the end to Gatsby’s story, and what takes place later shows that man and machine are not, after all, one and the same, and Gatsby has been merely blind.

Clockmaking

This is a picture of a 17th-century Italian clock. What is instantly striking, of course, is how beautiful and intricate the thing is. Though one cannot tell the size of the clock from the picture, the care that must have been put into its making is evident. The numbers are carefully engraved, in Roman numeral form on the outside of the outer circle; correspondingly, the slightly elevated inner circle has Arabic numerals on its rim. It is the depiction of flowers that takes up the majority of the space on both circles, however, and it is these that give the clock an especially ornate look. It is interesting to note the confluence here of the natural and the mechanical: the clock itself is manmade, though used to express something natural and completely beyond our control (i.e. time); but then the maker of this particular clock decided to decorate it with more naturally occurring things, namely flowers.

The most interesting conclusion I can draw from this design is that in the early days of the flowering of the mechanical arts (pun intended—the language itself here reveals a manner of thought), there was nowhere near as big a gap between “art” and “technology” as we see today. In our times, though certainly there always remains an element of the attractive around consumer products, this is first and foremost for advertising purposes, that is, to aid sales; on the other hand, the clock pictured above looks like it was really made with love. And that, too, no doubt, was a feature of these times: there could be a great joy and excitement in the discovery of new technological devices, which some makers and technicians liked to communicate by making of their work an artform. No doubt, even in the early days some clocks were made with an eye to practicality alone, but in any case, truly amazing productions like the one pictured above were more numerous. Commodity destroys the aura of artistic objects, true, but it need not destroy the art itself; yet one would be hard-pressed to find a new (as opposed to antique) clock today looking like this 17th-century one.

Hans Henny Jahnn (1894-1959), called one of the greatest German prose writers of the interwar period, expresses the old way of interacting with the mechanical arts—that is, doing justice to the “arts” part of the designation—in a short story called “The Watchmaker.” The story is dedicated “To the Memory of My Great-grandfather Matthias Jahnn” and, since it takes the form a recollection from childhood, it is not much of a stretch to presume that something similar happened to Hans Henny himself. This would have most likely occurred at the very end of the 19th century, showing thereby that in some places the art of producing beautiful technology, so to speak, must still have been practiced. In the story, a young boy visits his father, a watch and clockmaker, in his shop, and asks to be shown the clocks:

“[My father] holds a sphere-shaped repeater to my ear. He winds its spring, and with a delicate bell the little marvel counts out the hours and minutes of this moment. Suddenly a muffled din begins; bells, tinkles, animal voices, drums, flutes join in. The full hour is being greeted by a hundred living clockworks; for one minute there hovers a sacredness in the room as if the black angel of death had walked through. Only gradually does time move back to the silence of the regular tick-tock. I hold my breath.

“‘That is what is so great,’ says Father, ‘that every hour has its value, that none goes by without being praised. How many hours have I already heard!’

“With shy astonishment I look at the big pendulum clocks with their heavy weights of lead and brass hanging on twisted animal guts; their pendulums slowly swinging, counting the seconds. The sound of their bells had been silvery and pure so that I feel a reverential weakness in my knees.”

There are further paragraphs of equally breathtaking writing, Jahnn working his own craft as lovingly as the narrator’s father works his. Finally, the young boy is shown his father’s “prettiest clock,” for the display of which an elaborate clockwork morphs the entire room. Jahnn concludes the story with the following exchange between clockmaker, son, and assistant:

“‘What do you say to the clock that fills up the whole shop?’ My father asks me. The assistant answers instead:

“‘You have done better, master.’

“‘We can argue about that,’ my father becomes excited. He pushes his glass over to me, hands me bread and olives. I ask him:

“‘Why do you never eat together with Mother and me?’

“‘The clocks would be sad if I left them,’ he answers softly.

“‘We are sad too,’ I said resolutely.

“‘They would stop and never get going again. Your hearts do not stop; they do not break.—'”

Jahnn’s clockmaker is indisputably an artist, one who loves his work, is deeply dedicated to it, and is proud of his products—to the extent of neglecting his own family. These are characteristics that in our day we no longer associate with those who practice what used to be called “the mechanical arts” and are now, probably fittingly, only “technology,” but only with writers of literature, certain filmmakers, painters, etc.; whereas in bygone times—though as Jahnn shows, in some cases even only as recently as a century ago!—the distinction between art and technology was a very hazy one (which fact, of course, also brings to mind Shakespeare’s designation of Prospero’s magic as his “art”).

[“The Watchmaker” appears in Thirteen Uncanny Stories, which, published in 1984 by Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., is a translation by Gerda Jordan of Hans Henny Jahnn’s Dreizen nicht geheure Gesichten.]

“The whole is the false.”

—Theodor Adorno, from Minima Moralia (29)

“In the most general sense of progressive thought, the Enlightenment has always aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty. Yet the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant.”

—Max Horkheimer & Theodor Adorno, from The Dialectic of Enlightenment (3)

“Enlightenment, according to Kant, is ‘… man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without the guidance of another person.’ ‘Understanding without the guidance of another person’ is understanding guided by reason. This means no more than that, by virtue of its own consistency, it organizes the individual data of cognition into a system … In the Enlightenment’s interpretation, thinking is the creation of unified, scientific order and the derivation of factual knowledge from principles, whether the latter are elucidated as arbitrarily postulated axioms, innate ideas, or higher abstractions. Logical laws produce the most general relations within the arrangement, and define them. Unity resides in agreement.”

—Max Horkheimer & Theodor Adorno, from The Dialectic of Enlightenment (82)

“In the relating what is already past of my Story, this will be the more easily believ’d, when I shall add, that thro’ all the Variety of Miseries that has to this Day befallen me, I have never had so much as one Thought of it being the Hand of God, or that it was a just Punishment for my Sin; my rebellious Behaviour against my Father, or my present Sins which were great; or so much as a Punishment for the general Course of my wicked Life.”

—Daniel Defoe, from Robinson Crusoe (65)

“Myth turns into enlightenment, and nature into mere objectivity. Men pay for the increase of their power with alienation from that over which they exercise their power. Enlightenment behaves toward things as a dictator toward men. He knows them in so far as he can manipulate them. The man of science knows things in so far as he can make them. In this way their potentiality is turned to his own ends.”

—Max Horkheimer & Theodor Adorno, from The Dialectic of Enlightenment (9)

“Both Odysseus and Crusoe, the two shipwrecked mariners, make their weakness (that of the individual who parts from the collectivity) their social strength. Delivered up to the mercy of the waves, helplessly isolated, their very isolation forces them recklessly to pursue an atomistic interest … Both realize totality only in complete alienation from other men, who meet the two protagonists only in an alienated form—as enemies or as points of support, but always as tools, as things.”

—Max Horkheimer & Theodor Adorno, from The Dialectic of Enlightenment (61-62)

“My island was now peopled, and I thought my self very rich in Subjects; and it was a merry Reflection which I frequently made, How like a King I look’d. First of all, the whole Country was my own meer Property; so that I had an undoubted Right of Dominion. 2dly, My People were perfectly subjected: I was absolute Lord and Lawgiver; they all owed their Lives to me, and were ready to lay down their Lives, if there had been Occasion of it, for me.”

—Daniel Defoe, from Robinson Crusoe (174)

“The outrage over atrocities decreases, the more that the ones affected are unlike normal readers, the more brunette, “dirty”, dago-like. This says just as much about the atrocity as about the observers. Perhaps the social schematism of perception in anti-Semites is so altered, that they cannot even see Jews as human beings. The ceaselessly recurrent expression that savages, blacks, Japanese resemble animals, or something like apes, already contains the key to the pogrom. The possibility of this latter is contained in the moment that a mortally wounded animal looks at a human being in the eye. The defiance with which they push away this gaze – “it’s after all only an animal” – is repeated irresistibly in atrocities to human beings, in which the perpetrators must constantly reconfirm this “only an animal”, because they never entirely believed it even with animals. The concept of human beings in repressive society is the parody of the notion that human beings were created in the image of God. The mechanism of “pathic projection” functions in such a manner that the power-brokers perceive only their own mirror image as human beings, instead of reflecting back what is human as precisely what is different. Murder is thus the attempt to displace, again and again, the madness of such false perception into reason, through greater madness: what is not seen as a human being and yet is a human being, is turned into a thing, so that it can no longer rebut the manic gaze through any sort of impulse.”

—Theodor Adorno, from Minima Moralia (68)

“Those savages of whom it is recounted that they have no other longing than to die, or rather, they no longer have even that longing, but death has a longing for them, and they abandon themselves to it, or rather, they do not even abandon themselves, but fall into the sand on the shore and never get up again—those savages I much resemble, and indeed I have fellow clansmen round about, but the confusion in these territories is so great, the tumult is like waves rising and falling by day and by night, and the brothers let themselves be borne upon it. That is what, in this country, is called ‘giving someone a leg up’; everyone here is always ready with such help. Anyone who might collapse without cause and remain lying on the ground is dreaded as though he were the Devil, it is because of the example, it is because of the stench of truth that would emanate from him. Granted, nothing would happen; one, ten, a whole nation might very well remain lying on the ground and nothing would happen; life in all its might would go on just the same; the attics are still chockablock with flags that were never unfolded; this barrel organ can only play one tune, but it is eternity in person that turns the handle. And yet the fear! How people do always carry their own enemy, however powerless he is, within themselves.”

—Franz Kafka, “The Savages”

“Had Robinson Crusoe never left the highest, or more correctly the most visible point of his island, from desire for comfort, or timidity, or fear, or ignorance, or longing, he would soon have perished; but since without paying any attention to passing ships and their feeble telescopes he started to explore the whole island and take pleasure in it, he managed to keep himself alive and finally was found after all, by a chain of causality that was, of course, logically inevitable.

—Franz Kafka, “Robinson Crusoe”

“The whole Anglo-Saxon spirit is in Crusoe; the manly independence; the unconscious cruelty; the persistence; the slow yet efficient intelligence; the sexual apathy; the practical, well-balanced religiousness; the calculating taciturnity. Whoever rereads this simple, moving book in the light of subsequent history cannot help but fall under its prophetic spell.

“Saint John the Evangelist saw on the island of Patmos the apocalyptic ruin of the universe and the building of the walls of the eternal city sparkling with beryl and emerald, with onyx and jasper, with sapphire and ruby. Crusoe saw only one marvel in all the fertile creation around him, the print of a naked foot in the virgin sand. And who knows if the latter was not more significant than the former?’

—James Joyce, from “Daniel Defoe” (323)

“Unreal city,

“Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,

“A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,

“I had not thought death had undone so many.

“Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,

“And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.

“Flowed up the hill and down King William Street

“To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours

“With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.

“There I saw one I knew, and stopped him crying: ‘Stetson!

“‘You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!

“‘That corpse you planted last year in your garden,

“‘Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?

“‘Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?

“‘Oh keep the dog far hence, that’s friend to men,

“‘Or with his nail he’ll dig it up again!

“‘You! hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable,—mon frère!’”

—T. S. Eliot, from “The Waste Land”

The function of Crusoe’s diary, it seems, is not to anatomize the self, but rather to keep track of it in the modern fashion that Riesman [David Riesman, author of The Lonely Crowd] describes: “The diary-keeping that is so significant a symptom of the new type of character may be viewed as an inner time-and-motion study by which the individual records and judges his output day by day. It is evidence of the separation between the behaving and observing self.”

–Leopold Damrosch, Jr., “Myth and Fiction in Robinson Crusoe”

These quotes from Damrosch and Riesman (in this context) are a reading of Robinson Crusoe’s diary, and the fact that he keeps it. The notion of its being “evidence of the separation between the behaving and observing self” is a compelling one, as it helps elucidate the curious nature of many passages in the later parts of the novel by tying them back to Crusoe’s diary-keeping. In fact, it is strange that soon after arriving on an uninhabited island from which Crusoe knows he should expect no rescue, he takes to keeping a detailed, meticulous diary of his time and activity on the island. No one, he must suppose, will ever read it but himself; and he is perfectly aware that his ink will not last forever, and that he will soon enough have to stop the diarykeeping anyhow. Yet he goes on with it – and one way to make sense of this is quoted above, that is, it is early evidence in the novel of Crusoe’s tendency to separate his two selves, that which acts and that which narrates.

I will follow with what I believe to be are two quite telling and corroborating examples. The first is the way Crusoe tells of his fury with the cannibals. Consider this passage from page 167: “This, with the Abhorrence of the inhumane Errand these Wretches came about, fill’d me with such Indignation, that I came down again to Friday, and told him, I was resolv’d to go down to them, and kill them all; and ask’d him, if he would stand by me?” In the next paragraph Crusoe describes his emotions as a “Fit of Fury.” This is a scene that reoccurs. Whenever Crusoe is reminded directly, usually by seeing human bones or watching the natives in the act of cooking humans, he becomes furious and loses his sense of reason; yet the prose, Crusoe’s narrative voice, does not reflect this in the slightest. Crusoe the narrator keeps the calm tone and atomistic perspective of the rest of the book, and though what is being described is extraordinary, we feel as if we were reading another passage about the measurements of a boat he was building. Here, too, as in all the instances in which this happens (of which there are at least three or four), we see the “separation between the behaving and observing self,” and cannot help but wonder – where, then, is the true Crusoe? To what extent does he acknowledge or disregard this part of his character, in this future telling of his story?

Equally confounding is the apparent equanimity with which Crusoe describes his exit from the island. To be sure, there is that moving passage in which, after the ship is recovered and its Captain comes to tell Crusoe of this, the latter is completely overwhelmed. But from there on in, there is hardly any mention of Crusoe’s thoughts about the change of circumstances, and the sure emotions that were associated with it. Instead of an account of what he felt during the voyage, or returning to England, we simply have more adventure storytelling and extensive description of the way Crusoe reacquires a fortune. There is even the bizarre slapstick passage about Friday’s encounter with the bear. This is all exceedingly strange, and brings to the forefront even more the fact that there must be an immense gap between Crusoe the character and Crusoe the narrator, one that forces us to rethink the man’s character – and as Damrosch points out, the fascinating thing is that there has been evidence of this identity-separation all along, starting with Crusoe’s diarykeeping. We have discussed the differences between the fracturing of reality and identity in Ubik and the postmodern times with which it is concerned, and the stability of the same in Defoe’s novel. Yet the line of thought laid out above complicates the issue, for when one gets down to it, the great gulf separating character and narrator (though the first-person account implies they should be one and the same) cannot simply be overlooked or ignored.

Jacek Bełc

English 399W

Professor Frederick Buell

26 September 2010

A Dangerous Strength

One definition of technology is any object, or method involving objects, that serves as a catalyst for the assertion of power. The Internet, to use the most modern example, has claimed control of the realm of information, what with its immense abundance of websites and search engines that allow one to navigate the sea of facts and opinions; but there are also certain figures who are dominant within the world of the Internet, such as government censors (operating on a large scale) or Wikipedia monitors (on one much smaller). The telephone, railway, and even paved road all contributed to the conquering of distance. Video cameras and photographs replaced memory. The most potent kind of technology by this definition, however, and that which may be manifest in all of the examples I mentioned above as well as countless others, is the kind that exerts control directly over living beings. A literary example of such a technology and the wide-ranging effects it may have is the magic that the former duke Prospero of Shakespeare’s Tempest has learned from his books. The plot of the play centers on Prospero’s ability to conjure a storm: “I have bedimmed / The noontide sun,” a late litany begins, “called forth the mutinous winds” (5.1.41-42). This essay will examine the dangerous aspects of possessing such a power, as already glimpsed by one writing at the beginning of the 17th century, long before the mechanical as opposed to magical technologies that bestowed powers like Prospero’s came into being.

The most controversial matter in the play is that of Caliban, the native “savage” of whom Prospero makes a “slave” (1.2.358, 1.2.316). The art with which Prospero exerts control over Caliban, however, is not limited to the magic he uses. “When thou cam’st first, / Thou … [taught] me how / To name the bigger light, and how the less, / That burn by day and night; and then I loved thee” (1.2.335-339), Caliban tells his master soon after arriving onstage. A couple of acts later, when Caliban is plotting to overthrow Prospero, he tells Stefano to “remember / first to possess his books, for without them / He’s but a sot as I am, nor hath not / One spirit to command—they all do hate him / As rootedly as I” (3.2.86-90). It is, on the most fundamental level, Prospero’s literacy and learning that give him power over Sycorax’s son. Like Bertilak’s courtiers in awe of Gawain, so Caliban to Prospero; but the consequences that follow the admirer’s willing subordination are much darker in this tale. Only when Caliban has lost his autonomy does he realize that the trade-off was not worthwhile: “this island’s mine, by Sycorax my mother,” he insists, “which thou take’st from me” (1.2.334-335). Even in his scheme to get revenge, he must subordinate himself to the most pathetic of the new arrivals to the island, the drunken butler Stefano and jester Trinculo. Lastly, at play’s end Caliban remains powerless, even after Prospero disposes of his books; “this thing of darkness I / acknowledge mine,” says Prospero (5.1.278-279), and that is essentially the last we hear of Caliban—how he is to fare in the play’s aftermath we do not learn.

Equally troubling, though augmented in this case by the complexity of the relationship between the two figures, is Prospero’s control over Ariel. In the first scene, though at the height of his agitation, Prospero is as harsh with the spirit as he is with his own daughter, despite the great service Ariel has just done him, and at this juncture anyhow does not let pass from his lips a single word of thanks. Instead, he chides Ariel for the spirit’s own supposed ingratitude: “Thou liest, malignant thing. Hast thou forgot / The foul witch Sycorax, who with age and envy / Was grown into a hoop? Hast thou forgot her?” (1.2.258-260). The sorcerer’s anger only escalates, in spite of Ariel’s demureness: “If thou murmur’st, I will rend an oak, / And peg thee in his knotty entrails till / Thou hast howled away twelve winters” (1.2.296-298), threatening his servant with the very evil from which Prospero originally saved him. The abuse relents as time passes, and the final farewell the master bids his servant is a curious combination of curt and kind—”My Ariel, chick, / That is thy charge. Then to the elements / Be free, and fare thou well” (5.1.320-322)—but it can nevertheless be argued that the only reason Prospero is more reasonable with Ariel than Caliban is because he needs the former in a way he does not need the latter. Despite the closeness the sorcerer and the air spirit share, Ariel ultimately remains a tool, an instrument of technology, and like Caliban is treated according to his perceived worth.

Finally, a point around which the entire play revolves, from beginning to end Prospero has his enemies (with but one exception, the moment of panic Prospero feels upon realizing he has neglected to attend to Caliban’s plot) completely in his grasp. He could have taken all their lives in the very first scene, but chooses to keep them alive for his own ends, which after a matter of mere hours he achieves. His fearsome power exerts control not only over human life but even human death, as we learn in a chilling moment near the end of the play; “graves at my command / Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let ‘em forth / By my so potent art” (5.1.48-50). This is the only mention of Prospero’s necromancy, and there is no indication that he abused the power, but he was close enough to rendering at least Antonio and Sebastian lifeless, and only held back at Ariel’s urging. The humane one turns out to be the air sprite, not the man: “Your charm so strongly works ‘em / That if you now beheld them your affections / Would become tender …  Mine would, sir, were I human” (5.1.17-21). Every living being has some control over the powers of life and death, if only because every living being must eat, but the enormous capabilities Prospero’s art bestows on him in this regard is downright frightening—what is such power doing in the hands of someone so vengeful and self-absorbed? The Tempest could have easily been a tragedy, had Prospero decided to carry through a revenge and had some aspect of his scheme backfired in such a way as to also damage him or Miranda and Ferdinand.

Any discussion of technology must take into consideration the states of mind that accompany its usage; when read with that in mind, The Tempest paints a very dark picture. What is amazing and a blessing to the time period in question is that it takes just one decisive action to wipe out the means with which Prospero has risen to his position as a puppet-master of life and death; it is enough for him to say “this rough magic / I here abjure … I’ll break my staff, / Bury it certain fathoms in the earth, / And deeper than did ever plummet sound / I’ll drown my book” (5.1.50-57). This is a luxury not available to the Prosperos of our day even should they undergo a change of heart such as he does; one might destroy nuclear weapons, and perhaps even the documents one possesses that reveal the secrets of their making, but science is available to all, and equally destructive weapons are available to other world leaders; no longer can one erase the stain one casts with a single decisive motion like Prospero’s. Such is our loss—but with a text like The Tempest spelling out its warning for four hundred years, it is also our own fault.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. “The Tempest.” The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt, et al. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.

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