Five Points, Vol. 6 No. 2Spring 2002
From Jim Harrison, “We all go up in smoke. I can disappear that quickly.”
After his big speech in The Tempest about the stuff that dreams are made on, Prospero tells Ferdinand and Miranda that he’s feeling a little “vexed.” That they shouldn’t be disturbed by his “infirmity.” But there’s nothing infirm about Prospero’s mind or the extraordinary powers that it’s displayed for five acts. The masque of spirits in the fourth act had come to an end with Prospero’s mention of Caliban’s conspiracy against him—a jolt of realism that would send the most devoted fantasists and sprites into hiding. What’s infirm here, Prospero implies, is our “little life,” our ambitions, our desires, our fundamental sense of stability. The world in this play continually shifts, changes shape. The lightning and thunder in the first act are no more real, no more the result of natural consequences, than Ceres and Isis in the fifth act, yet in each case the characters are deeply affected by the illusions. We can’t see the vast forces that are controlling our lives, and as we watch the characters in the play from Prospero’s perspective, we feel a little more helpless, a little less assured the next time we start to lay our own plans for our own little lives. In the epilogue to the play Prospero hands his fate over to the audience, and though we feel pretty certain that his dukedom’s secured and that the audience will free him to claim it, Shakespeare still leaves the business unfinished. We never see Prospero in Italy.
When the earthquake hit Seattle on February 28, 2001, I’d just finished eating lunch in my office at the University of Arkansas, over 1600 miles away. I didn’t feel a thing. Mark Workman, however, a tourist from Detroit, happened to be in the Space Needle when the action started, and he felt it deeply, but he couldn’t figure out what was going on: “First we thought it was part of a show, but, you know: ‘No. No way. It was just unreal,’” Workman said. “It was just unbelievable.” Workman’s right, I’m sure. He must’ve felt for a moment as if the rumbling and shaking were an orchestrated illusion, that Prospero was sitting somewhere in the Space Needle behind a panel of controls. But the events of our lives often happen that way. Unreal. Unbelievable. Why? Why are we so devoted to permanence and stability, why do we work so hard to achieve them, when every day we see ample evidence that permanence and stability are no more than the rough magic that we practice on ourselves to get through the day? I finished my lunch in Arkansas, unaware that Mark Workman was being hung out to dry in the Space Needle in Seattle. That disturbs me profoundly.