John William Waterhouse’s painting "Miranda—The Tempest."
May 11, 2014
Those in the premodern world who hoarded possessions and refused to redistribute supplies and food, who turned their backs on the weak and the sick, who lived exclusively for hedonism and their own power, were despised. Those in modern society who are shunned as odd, neurotic or eccentric, who are disconnected from the prosaic world of objective phenomena and fact, would have been valued in premodern cultures for their ability to see what others could not see. Dreams and visions—considered ways to connect with the wisdom of ancestors—were integral to existence in distant times. Property was communal then. Status was conferred by personal heroism and providing for the weak and the indigent. And economic exchanges carried the potential for malice, hatred and evil: When wampum was exchanged by Native Americans the transaction had to include "medicine" that protected each party against "spiritual infection."
Only this premodern ethic can save us as we enter a future of economic uncertainty and endure the catastrophe of climate change. Social and economic life will again have to be communal. The lusts of capitalism will have to be tamed or destroyed. And there will have to be a recovery of reverence for the sacred, the bedrock of premodern society, so we can see each other and the earth not as objects to exploit but as living beings to be revered and protected. This means inculcating a very different vision of human society.
Our greatest oracles have sought to impart this wisdom. William Shakespeare lamented the loss of the pagan rituals eradicated by the Reformation. When Shakespeare was a boy, the critic Harold Goddard pointed out, he experienced the religious pageants, morality plays, church festivals, cycle plays, feast and saint days, displays of relics, bawdy May Day celebrations and tales of miracles that made up the belief system during the reign of the medieval Catholic Church. The Puritans, the ideological vanguard of the technological order, would eventually ban or greatly weaken all of these, and they made war on the Elizabethan and Jacobean theaters for celebrating these premodern practices.
The London authorities in 1596 prohibited the public presentation of plays within city limits. Theaters had to relocate to the south side of the River Thames. The Puritans, in power under Cromwell in 1642, closed the London theaters. In Puritan New England at about the same time the authorities banned games, revels and "harlotry plays." In 1644 the Puritans tore down Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. Within four years all other theaters in and around London had been destroyed. The Puritans understood, in a way that is perhaps lost to us today, that Shakespeare subverts modernity.
Shakespeare portrays the tension between the premodern and the modern. He sees the rise of the modern as dangerous. The premodern reserved a place in the cosmos for human imagination. The new, modern, Machiavellian ethic of self-promotion, manipulation, bureaucracy and deceit—personified by Iago, Richard III and Lady Macbeth—deformed human society. Shakespeare lived during a moment when the modern world—whose technology allowed it to acquire weapons of such unrivaled force that it could conquer whole empires, including the Americas and later China—instilled through violence this new secular religion. He feared its demonic power.
Oracles were revered in premodern societies. These oracles were in touch with realities and forces that lay beyond the empirical. All societies have oracles—such as Thomas Paine, Emma Goldman, W.E.B. Du Bois and James Baldwin in the United States—but in a modern society they are pushed to the margins, ridiculed and often persecuted. Those who spoke out of their vision quests in Native American society, or from Delphi in ancient Greece, did not employ the cold, clinical language of science and reason. They spoke, rather, in the nebulous language of love, tenderness, patience, justice, redemption and forgiveness. They paid homage, and called on us to pay homage, to the mysterious incongruities of human existence. A society that loses its respect for the sacred, that ignores its oracles and severs itself from the power of human imagination, ensures its obliteration.
Reason makes possible the calculations, science and technological advances of industrial civilization. But reason does not lift us upward to the heavens. It does not bring us into contact with the sacred. It does not permit us to curb our self-destructive urges. Herman Melville, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Emily Dickinson, Marcel Proust, William Faulkner, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Lorraine Hansberry and August Wilson mocked the myth of human progress and the folly of hubris. They, like Shakespeare, warned that conflating technological advancement with human progress deforms us.
Prospero in Shakespeare’s "The Tempest" is master of an enchanted island where he has absolute power. He keeps the primitive Caliban and the spirit Ariel as his slaves. The play is about liberty, love and the capacity for awe. It reminds us that the power unleashed in the wilderness can prompt us to good if we honor the sacred but to monstrous evil if we do not. There are few constraints in the wilderness, a theme that would later be explored by the novelist Joseph Conrad. Imagination triumphed in "The Tempest" because those who were bound to their senses and lusts were subjugated. However, overseas in the American colonies, as Shakespeare knew, the poison of dark passions embodied by the Calibans and evil dukes of the world had unleashed an orgy of greed, theft and genocide.
Those who worship themselves, the essence of the modern, commit spiritual suicide. In love with himself after seeing his reflection in a pond, Narcissus is doomed, as many in the modern world are, by vanity, celebrity and the need for admirers and sycophants. Narcissists master the arts of manipulation, seduction, power and control. They eschew empathy, honesty, trust and transparency. It is a form of mental illness.
It is through imagination that we can reach the dark regions of the human psyche and face our mortality and the brevity of existence. It is through imagination that we can recover reverence and kinship. It is through imagination that we can see ourselves in our neighbors and the other living organisms of the earth. It is through imagination that we can envision other ways to form a society. The triumph of modern utilitarianism, implanted by violence, crushed the primacy of the human imagination. It enslaved us to the cult of the self. And with this enslavement came an inability to see, the central theme of "King Lear." Imagination, as Goddard wrote, "is neither the language of nature nor the language of man, but both at once, the medium of communion between the two—as if the birds, unable to understand the speech of man, and man, unable to understand the songs of birds, yet longing to communicate, were to agree on a tongue made up of sounds they both could comprehend—the voice of running water perhaps or the wind in the trees. Imagination is the elemental speech in all senses, the first and the last, of primitive man and of the poets."
All of the great visionaries and leaders of the Indian tribes, from medicine men like Black Elk and Sitting Bull to warriors such as Crazy Horse, in the presence of the natural world heard it speak to them, in the same way it spoke to Shakespeare, Dickinson or Walt Whitman. All elements of life, especially those that lie beyond articulation, infuse the human imagination. The communion—accentuated by vision quests, the sanctity of dreams, odd occurrences, miracles and the wonder of nature, as well as rituals that take place within a communal society—blurs the lines between the self and the world. This ability to connect with the sacred is what Percy Shelley meant when he wrote that poetry "lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world and makes familiar things as if they were not familiar." We are reminded at that moment of the wonder of life and our insignificance in the vastness of the cosmos, reminded that, as Prospero said, "we are such stuff as dreams are made on." Too often this wisdom comes too late, as it does when Othello stands over the dead Desdemona or Lear over his executed daughter, Cordelia. This wisdom makes grace possible. Songs, poetry, music, theater, dance, sculpture, art, fiction and ritual move human beings toward the sacred. They clear the way for transformation. The prosaic world of facts, data, science, news, technology, business and the military is cut off from the mysteries of creation and existence. We will recover this imagination, this capacity for the sacred, or we will vanish as a species.