Archive for October, 2010

Oct 26 2010


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While reading this heart-wrenching novel, I was (obviously) trying to decide what kind of creator, or inventor, Victor Frankenstein is.  The element that struck me as unique to VF’s story was his selfishness. He got lost in his quest to produce something new and exciting that would be a manifestation and culmination of all of his hard work and toil. But he didn’t think ahead; though he mentions the potentially positive by-product of being able to conquer death, most of VF’s motivations center around his amazement at the abilities he finds he has/can develop. He describes that from the midst of the darkness of his confusion about the machinations of life and death, a dizzying, “brilliant and wondrous” light opened up his eyes and allowed him to understand the secret of human life.

This depiction is starkly antithetical to the descriptions of inventors we have read thus far. Morgan Le Fay, Prospero, Shakespeare (if we see him as a quasi-inventor in The Tempest), and Crusoe thought about their inventions. Even if they didn’t have the best of intentions (like in Prospero’s case, I would argue,), they considered the ramifications that their inventions would mean. VF did no such thing. He was hit with a flash of inspiration, and the sensation of being able to use his knowledge as tangible, real-live power was heady. He got lost in the moment, and while I sympathized immensely with him by the end of the book, no amount of remorse could make up for the narcissism that caused it all.

Shelley is making a point, albeit in a grossly exaggerated way, about the power of technology. It can slip through your fingers, even if you’re the inventor, before you can blink. This is the result of the kind of scientist that Romanticism celebrates, according to Richard Holmes. This is the perilous outcome of  what he calls “the dazzling idea of the solitary scientific ‘genius,’ thirsting and reckless for knowledge, for its own sake and perhaps at any cost.” Shelley’s VF shows just how steep that cost can be.

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Oct 20 2010

Clocks- They’re Taking Over

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Although this image doesn’t exactly show a clock, per se, its message was too poignant to pass over. In this depiction, a woman encounters some sort of law enforcement officer, and in what she expected (if not trusted) to be a routine “good day,” she finds a most frightening sight. The man she knew as the friendly neighborhood policeman is actually a machine! His smiles, advice, familiarity, and comfort were all a ruse; there was nobody home all along. He was simply a ticking compilation of cogs and pulleys, designed to (literally) put on a face that would keep people at bay.

While this cartoon is clearly a severe exaggeration, the point it makes is an important one. Technology can perhaps put on a good show– it can don a mask that allows it to keep people feeling happy and safe… but only for a time. Inevitably, the fact that it was simply an amalgamation of short and long hands will become apparent, at which point the sense of security will be replaced by a pervasive sense of panic, not unlike the sensation that the floor is falling away from underneath you.

This shock effect that technology has the potential to wield does not, of course, apply only to societies where policemen are really, in fact, machines (don’t look so incredulous, they’ll probably be here before you know it).  Technology throughout the ages, of which the clock is a particularly apt example, ironically, because of its ostensibly simple mechanics, has been and often still is scary. When a previously human capability is infused into a pile of nuts and bolts, the loss of control and predictability can be debilitating (see googly-eyed woman in cartoon above).

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Oct 13 2010

Defoe’s Psychoanalysis (or Lack Thereof) of Robinson Crusoe

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“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”

While reading Crusoe, the highly specialized and refined tension spelled out in the above quote from Damrosch was continuously on my mind. I could not help but wonder at the severe discrepancy between the world that Robinson Crusoe allows us to see, and that which I was convinced was going on inside of his head. From a psychoanalytic perspective, this discrepancy evidences a severe disconnect. The structure of Robinson Crusoe lends itself to an outpouring of thought and emotion, or to what Sigmund Freud, father of psychoanalytic theory, would call free-association. What better forum to bare your soul than in a diary? However, Crusoe leaves his emotional experiences a mystery throughout the novel, thereby creating a strangely cold, out-of-body sensation for the reader to experience as s/he reads.

When it comes to keeping the reader informed of Crusoe’s centrality in his own tale, Defoe leaves little to the imagination. The novel is fraught with phrases like, “in a word” (e.g. 193), and with Crusoe’s deliberations about what passages and/or anecdotes from which he thinks the reader would benefit most and which he should therefore include in his tale. For example, in determining which of his adventures to transmit, Crusoe writes:

“As I have troubled you with none of my Sea-Journals, so I shall trouble  you now with none of my Land-Journal: But some Adventures that happen’d to us in this tedious and difficult Journey, I must not omit.” (208)

These elements afford the reader a clear window into Crusoe’s thoughts. He is utterly aware of the story he is telling, and of the fact that he is telling over a story.

However, the impression Defoe gives the reader of Crusoe’s feelings is conveyed in a highly catalogic, sterile, and disconnected way. For example, near the end of the novel, Crusoe describes his realization that he’s been saved with a very external perspective:

“I was at first ready to sink down with Surprize. For I saw my Deliverance indeed visibly put into my hands, all things easy, and a large ship just ready to carry me away whither I pleased to go. At first, for some time, I was not able to answer him one Word; but as he had taken me in his Arms, I held fast by him, or I should have fallen to the Ground.” (196)

This paragraph, which describes what is perhaps the most significant and potentially emotional moment in the entire novel, is told in a way that makes the reader feel like he was watching, not feeling, the dawning of the realization take place in Crusoe.

Defoe provides a narrative that would function as a top-rate template for a playwright; it would be no difficult task to cast and direct a play about the events of Crusoe’s life. However, the novel grants little to no evidence for a psychological understanding or analysis of Crusoe. He merely “records and judges his output” (Damrosch), and he leaves the reader to wonder whether he even feels it at all.

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalytic theory.

Come on, Robinson, pour your heart out! That’s what a diary is for!

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Oct 06 2010

Technology’s Illusory Benefits in The Tempest

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Rachel Reich

ENG 399W

Professor Buell

26 September 2010

Technology’s Illusory Benefits in The Tempest

William Shakespeare’s final piece of theatrical magic, The Tempest, lends itself to myriad layers of complex meaning and significance. Perhaps one of the most obvious yet least explored interpretations of the play focuses on techno-criticism, which affords an understanding of its all-important yet elusive elements of magic. Prospero, Shakespeare’s protagonist and the play’s most overt technological voice, manipulates the events on his island towards what some may consider a benevolent end. Order is restored, those who had previously been involved in politically underhanded schemes are given retribution and a chance to make things right, and the whole contingent lives happily ever after. However, when examining this paradigm more closely, it seems that Shakespeare does not wholly approve of Prospero’s technologically mediated interventions. More aptly, The Tempest expresses the notion that technology can offer, at best, only small doses of apparent good.

The love story that Prospero orchestrates between his daughter Miranda and Naples’ royal prince, Ferdinand, is a perfect example of the small victories Prospero and his technology accomplish in this play. Miranda, having been raised as an emotionally impressionable young woman, falls for Ferdinand the moment she sets eyes on him. “I might call him/ a thing divine,” she exclaims, “for nothing natural/ I ever saw so noble” (1.2.421-3). Her reaction is not surprising, considering the fact that the only human man she can remember seeing is her very own father.

Ferdinand’s reciprocation of Miranda’s love further serves to fashion the impression that Prospero is actually doing something good with his powers.  Given the situation in which Ferdinand finds himself, a situation wholly crafted by Ariel as per Prospero’s instructions, it is no surprise that Ferdinand reacts with awe when he sees Miranda. Upon returning from creating the tempest and the ensuing shipwreck, Ariel reports to Prospero on the condition and whereabouts of all of the ship’s members:

And as thou bad’st me,

In troops I have dispersed them ‘bout the isle.

The King’s son have I landed by himself,

Whom I left cooling of the air with sighs

In an odd angle of the aisle, and sitting,

His arms in this sad knot. (1.2.220-5)

Evidently, Prospero had commanded Ariel to separate Ferdinand from the rest of his group, where he sits alone, mourning his desolation and his fate.

Then, right before he allows his daughter to glimpse her soon-to-be betrothed, Prospero again influences Ferdinand’s emotional state so that he will be conveniently smitten at the sight of Miranda. Ariel sings, “Full fathom five thy father lies, / of his bones are coral made” (1.2.400-1). This song, along with bell clanging sounds that the spirits make from within, convince Ferdinand both that his father is dead and that “this is no mortal business,” or that he is in some sort of magical arena (1.2.410). Thus, it is no surprise that upon setting eyes on Miranda for the very first time, Ferdinand calls her a “goddess” and a “wonder” (1.2.425, 430).

Unfortunately, Prospero’s utilization of magic/technology to foster a loving relationship between Ferdinand and Miranda cannot be understood to be an act of selfless altruism. Yes, Prospero is giving his daughter the gift of a lifetime, but how justified are his actions in light of Miranda’s severely indoctrinated psyche and with respect to the great lengths to which Prospero must go in order to create that love? As the young lovebirds set eyes on each other, Prospero comments, “It [my plan] goes on, I see, / as my soul prompts it” (1.2.423). What kind of a love do Miranda and Ferdinand have if it was contrived? Shakespeare seems to say that although Prospero carries out fatherly and caring activities with his magical tools, it is utterly unfair and unfortunate that Miranda and Ferdinand were subjected to their circumstances.

The extent to which Prospero uses his magic, or tools, to abuse Miranda is again depicted at the end of the play when Miranda sees all of the visitors on her island. She exclaims,

Oh wonder!

How many goodly creatures are there here!

How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world

That has such people in’t! (5.1.184-7)

By themselves, these lines are tragic, in that they bespeak a hopeless naivete. However, their devastation is greatly compounded when viewed as a microcosm of Miranda’s entire role in this play. She will continue, most likely, to live a life of fantasy! She will never be able to function normally in the real world both because her father landed her on their island by becoming too involved in his machinations in the first place, and because her father has literally held her under his spell for so many years. It may have seemed, from Miranda’s initial delight in Ferdinand and her reaction of awe at humanity, that Prospero crafted a life of enjoyment for Miranda. However, it is obvious that because of Prospero’s obsession with his books, he has destined Miranda for a life disconnected from reality. At its most basic level, Miranda’s artificial life will be nothing compared to what it might have been had Prospero’s abstained from meddling in magic/technology in the first place.

The other instance in the play that evidences Prospero’s apparently benevolent use of his art, or technology, comes at the end, when all of the players have ostensibly been restored to their original, good selves. This last scene is an especially dangerous one, in the sense that it truly threatens to dupe the reader. Beginning with his renunciation of his books, through the forgiveness he bestows upon all those gathered, and until his final request to be set free by the audience’s acclaim, Prospero appears to genuinely tie his whole magically manufactured mess into a neat, pretty bow. However, with a little reading between the lines, it is obvious that Prospero is still acting selfishly, as he was from the very moment he absorbed himself in his books and lost control of his dukedom so many years prior.

The first indication that the scene that follows will be more than it seems is when, right before avowing to drown his book, Prospero draws a circle on the ground. This circle, we soon learn, functions to charm all those who stand within it. If he so genuinely believes that he is in the right and that the order he is about to restore is in fact just, why does Prospero need to charm all of the players until he can arrange the circumstances so that every person will be forced to kowtow to him? Apparently, Prospero feels the need to continue to meddle and to fool even during what might be considered the most revealing and truthful scene of the play.

Another element that exposes Prospero’s true intentions in this scene is the manner in which he reveals himself and breaks the charm under which he has been holding all of his guests. Most poignant is his self-identification to Alonso, the King of Naples. After donning the clothes of the Duke of Milan, Prospero says to Alonso, “Behold, sir King, / the wronge`d Duke of Milan, Prospero,” (5.1.109-10). This weighty introduction, very clearly designed to induce feelings of guilt and remorse within Alonso, illustrates that Prospero is still using his crafty techniques when he is supposedly restoring order. Clearly, according to Shakespeare, technology cannot justifiably undo the mess it makes.

Two additional manipulations in this scene bolster the impression that Prospero is continuing to use technology towards his own ends, even though he had supposedly given up his book. Firstly, Prospero tells Sebastian and Antonio, who had previously plotted mutiny, that he is aware of their scheming and that he has the ability to “pluck his highness’ frown upon them/ and justify [prove] them traitors” (5.1.129-30). There is no apparent reason why Prospero would need to threaten Sebastian and Antonio with blackmail; rather, he is simply reveling in, or at least hanging on to, his last moments of mastery.

The second instance in the last scene of the play that indicates how Shakespeare feels about the function of technological prowess is when Prospero lies about Ferdinand and Miranda’s whereabouts. In order to secure Miranda’s position as future queen of Naples, Prospero confirms Alonso’s notion that his son has died with the words, “I am woe for’t, sir” (5.1.141). Then, in the same vein, Prospero claims that he has lost his daughter and can therefore help to make Alonso’s loss more bearable. To this admission, Alonso exclaims, “oh heavens, that they were living both in Naples, / the king and queen there!” (5.1.151-2). Shakespeare makes it utterly obvious that had Prospero not convinced Alonso that their respective children had perished, it is highly unlikely that Alonso would have been stirred to wish that his son would marry Prospero’s daughter and thereby make her queen of Naples. He only expressed that wish in the contrived moment of passion and sorrow. Prospero’s actions in this scene, which ostensibly set everyone and everything straight and upright again, are evidently not as altruistic as they may seem. In truth, he is suffering from a huge amount of anxiety at his magic-free reintegration into Naples, and he cannot help but grasp at the very last strings he can reach, even if it means resorting to methods that abuse and manipulate those around him.

It may be the case that at the moment when all of the island’s inhabitants step foot on their Naples-bound ship, they will feel that they are in a state of complete restoration and harmony. However, Shakespeare subtly tells the reader, once back in the real world of Naples, without Ariel, magic cloaks, and circles of enchantment, Prospero’s spell will break! The notion that Prospero has utilized his various forms of technology in order to rectify Naples’ decrepit political state is nothing more than an illusion. Throughout The Tempest, Shakespeare drops hints of Prospero’s inability to affect any real, lasting good with his machinations and manipulations. Shakespeare’s message, at the end of both his play and his career, is unmistakable; the accomplishments of technology, or of the magical and elusive art that man can sometimes harness, are an enjoyable yet ephemeral fantasy.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. The Norton Shakespeare, Based on the Oxford Edition, Second Edition: Volume 2: Later Plays. 2 ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2008. Print.

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