‘Tis new to thee

a dialogue between

Leandra Bernstein & James Soderholm

JS: As I become more and more like Prospero—craggy, crabby, losing my magic—I sometimes reflect on the meaning of The Tempest and the several sea-changes it has undergone in my evolving, dying brain. At first, when I was 17, I found the play a frippery—as Caliban might say—and somehow not worthy of Shakespeare’s mature genius. Later, when I was about 35 and had to teach it, I found the play even more disagreeable because the students did not like it or seem to ‘get’ it at all. It was either too simple or even silly for them or so vastly sophisticated that they had no hopes of properly weighing it and certainly no prospect of writing an essay about it. It was only when I was 45 or so that it occurred to me just how beautiful, well-wrought and ingenious The Tempest might be, and in fact that the entire play might be—ironic, as ironic as Prospero makes Miranda’s excited remark, “O brave new world, that it has such creatures in it” when he replies, with world-weary wisdom, “’Tis new to thee.” Now, at 62, when every fourth thought is my death, Shakespeare’s last play is both cause and effect of sea-changes swirling in the mind’s ear, and I hear, like sleeping Caliban, such sweet noises that when I finish reading the play or watching it I cry to enter its world again, and again, for each time it is new to me. 

Only great works of art can do that: be forever young and give one some purchase on the beauty of being young, not in body but in mind. I think truly great art is a brave new world that does have marvellous creatures in it. The magic of some metaphors never grows old, as one’s eyes become pearls of perceptiveness and one begins to see that The Tempest was never a frippery. I was. Prospero may abjure his “rough magic” but the play never does. 

Has The Tempest made you richer and stranger as well? Does it wear a halo in your literary memory? And I wonder if part of the appeal of great literature is not just that it allows us to lead a double life, but strongly urges us to? There are so many gods and monsters one wants to be—or try out—before one makes one’s grave. 

LB:  Imagine becoming more like Prospero in your old age; we should all be so lucky! Yes, Prospero loses some of his magic to command the spirits and seas, but never his ability to enchant the audience. It’s ironic to be left with such a mortal, who laments: “Now my charms are all o'erthrown, And what strength I have's mine own.” 

I have always been susceptible to the “magic” that Prospero worked on all the creatures of the island. I never understood the play, just that it left me spell-bound, true to form. Honestly, I’m reluctant to try to understand it out of fear that I will no longer be under his sway, that my senses will be restored and I shall be myself. 

The first time I was exposed to The Tempest was at boarding school. Every year students in the Shakespeare class had to memorize the stanza uttered by Caliban: “Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises...” Not knowing the context, I wished for that base monster’s dreams.

When I was 27 I discovered the full play with a group of friends who believed it was a moral imperative to experience and perform beautiful works of art. They moved on to other works, I stayed on the island. 

Around that same time, I affectionately began calling my mentor Prospero. He was a much older man who inspired and frightened me, enchanted me with stories, music and history and controlled me. Ignorant of what I was, I listened for years to tales that “would cure deafness” and revealed parts of my true self.

All of that says less about the play than my own willingness to submit to a benevolent master and clever teacher. 

So I never withheld anything from this play. I surrendered to it. Why wouldn’t I? Why shun Prospero’s redemption, deny Miranda a “beauteous mankind” and Ferdinand a “second life” or, worse, allow Antonio and Sebastian’s treachery to stand? 

It’s terrible to say, but maybe freedom is overrated when it comes to great art or great ideas. Why not submit? “All corners else o’ the earth / Let liberty make use of; space enough / Have I in such a prison.”

JS: It is not lucky to grow old, wise, cynical, and loving the Oxford comma above loving almost anything else, including human beings.

As far as submitting to Art, I am reminded of Conrad’s “To the destructive element submit” – a kind of aesthetic version of the Islamic “submission”? Allah/God knows.

 Art’s gilded cage is far superior to the other cages, no? Especially the middle-class (Nabokov, bless him, said “muddle crass”) cage of double-glazing, mortgage, pensions and et ceterally unto death.

Far better:

Where should this music be? i' the air or the earth?
It sounds no more: and sure, it waits upon
Some god o' the island. Sitting on a bank,
Weeping again the king my father's wreck,
This music crept by me upon the waters,
Allaying both their fury and my passion
With its sweet air: thence I have follow'd it,
Or it hath drawn me rather. But 'tis gone.
No, it begins again.

ARIEL sings

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell

Do not ask for whom Art tolls. It tolls for us. Like “Inventing America” at Lewis & Clark (your alma vater?), we are enjoined to re-invent ourselves as we gratefully suffer the sea-change of lovely blank verse, of tempestuous Art: the music that makes us all such confident lyres/liars that we cannot help dreaming ourselves up as often as possible.

Is there a “true self” or rather ornamented, rich, strange fictional selves that spirit us along like Ariel piloting through the commands given to him. We are large. We contain Ariels.

 LB: I can’t help but wonder about your repeated reference to the “sea-change / Into something rich and strange.” I can’t understand why that somewhat morbid passage seems to have captured you. I wish you would say more.

Just as well, Alonso was not transformed into a rich and strange corpse, though Ferdinand conceived the verse to mean he was King of Naples. It was another bit of magic on the island to trick the creatures into an awareness of what they were—all masters and all slaves.

Perhaps we’re most enchanted with the whispered melodies that tell us what we want to hear, that we will be king or, if we do in fact contain Ariels, that we will be free. Or most alluring, that we will be transformed painlessly as if in a dream.

Is it deception? Probably, but I am wont to believe the lies “that give delight and hurt not,” because they contain something as potent and transformative as truth. It’s not so much about trying on a fictional self or escaping the colorless banalities of waking life. In the case of this play, and so many others, it’s the ever-present possibility of redemption in a world that makes one cry in earnest “Hell is empty / And all the devils are here!”

 JS: I think poetry is sea-change: metaphors magically transform x into y: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd / Petals on a wet, black bough.” Eyes becoming pearls is morbid except in poetry. That is why I try to live as far as possible in literature. The best thing would be to be so talented and absorbed that one spends most of the day lost in the sweet music of metaphor. Instead, we have to pick out a smoke alarm and make damned sure it also contains a carbon monoxide detector. We have to suffer the indignity of traffic, the insolence of bureaucrats, and the perfect monotony of the monthly mortgage payment. All the devils are here indeed, in our media-drenched, commercial, demotic, and frankly insane world where the arms sales industry cheerfully sacrifices small countries and rips apart their children in order to keep profits streaming in.  

So, Prospero’s island-world (all of Shakespeare’s plays) start to look pretty good, for as long as you can stay marooned on it.

I once fell asleep in the painting of a bed. This one:

I slept well for the first time in my life. That must mean something, no?

 LB: Certainly. It must have been a relief to escape the banal order of life to rest in the welcoming disorder of the scene. 

I’ve been rethinking the idea of art as an escape. I was reluctant to admit it at the start of the dialogue, until I considered other works that have a similar magical effect on me. 

Allow me to explain in a roundabout way. 

I used to sing bel canto. For four years I sang almost every day with a chorus, or quartet or whatever we could fashion. My favorite thing was singing outdoors on the street to strangers. I hated singing inside and I especially disliked singing solo. Outside was different. With four voices we filled several downtown blocks and created a fleeting moment of harmony in an otherwise hostile environment. It was downtown Seattle, after all. I’ll never forget the man who walked up to me and said my voice sounded like a violin. 

In time, I moved from Seattle to Virginia and to a different chorus with singers who were infatuated with their solo voices. Granted, they had good reason. I tried to keep up but I was always frustrated. I gravitated toward Franz Schubert’s lieder but I could never make my voice match the beauty of the song—I often feel that way reciting poetry, that it never sounds so beautiful on my lips as in my head. I sang “Nachtstück,” about the old man who strode into the woods with his harp to die. I sang “An Die Leier,” about the musician who felt compelled to sing of heroism and war but his lyre could only play sounds of love. 

I could never sing the song I loved most, “An Die Musik,” because saying the words, even in a language I barely understood, brought me to tears every time.

Beloved art, in how many grey/bleak hours,
When life’s tumultuous circle encompassed me,
Did you ignite my heart to warm love,
Bear me away in rapture to a better world?

Often has a sigh escaped from your harp,
A sweet, holy chord from you.
Then did the heavens open up to me better times.
Sacred art, I thank you for that.

After writing my last response to you, I listened to "An Die Musik" and realized how often I sought Prospero’s island as an escape to "eine beßre Welt." For a few brief hours I was plucked, as if by some miracle, from the orderless, cruel and wild waters to a place perfectly designed to reveal a beauteous mankind of such flawed characters. 

The reason I resisted the idea of art as an escape (which, come to think of it, is another form of magic), is because of the other things I escape into—endless streaming, electronic music, HD and IMAX everything, so many cheap thrills. It’s not like I’m alone in this. Maybe I’m too judgmental or traditional, but those aren’t nearly as good, right? I can’t stop the chills I feel reading 14 lines from Shakespeare or Keats. I can’t feel much of anything in my other escapes, even if I gush about the latest Netflix show or insist that this new song is the best.

Sometimes, I’ve tried to share my most loved literary or musical treasures with friends. Precious few of them understood what I was seeing; or maybe they were immune to the magic, which would be a pity. Maybe they refused to surrender to it. Or maybe I’m seeing something that’s not there at all. 

JS:  I think in our demotic, slippery, fruitlessly-nihilist era, to have judgement and be traditional is nearly the most radical (rooted) thing one can do. It gives one the necessary heart and ear (‘ear’ is embedded in ‘heart’) to escape to enchanted islands. Caliban hears the island version of “An Die Musik” and it sounds like magic itself, reproduced by limpid blank verse.

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.
This will prove a brave kingdom to me, where I shall
have my music for nothing.

Stephano’s ‘brave kingdom’ where music drops into the lap of one’s dreams--and even one’s waking state--anticipates Miranda’s “brave new world” populated by admirable creatures. I am always annoyed when people pillory Art as Escapism, as if escaping from dreary, disenchanting, bleakly-bourgeois modernity was not a brilliant thing to do. Those dead eyes becoming pearls are also new eyes with which to see a new world. Here is Phillip Larkin.

New Eyes Each Year

New eyes each year
Find old books here,
And new books, too,
Old eyes renew;
So youth and age
Like ink and page
In this house join,
Minting new coin.

Maybe you are seeing with new eyes all the time, where most people see with only old eyes. And having a voice like a violin means you can transform the mundane every time you open your mouth, if you wish. What could be more transformative? People who think Art is an elitist, escapist past-time probably don’t have a clue what Art is and how it works. Being a teacher is so difficult because the great majority of people are too ignorant and lazy to listen carefully to islands full of twangling riches.

LB: I imagine it must be frustrating for you. Then I think about what you taught me and I’m certain you must turn a profit in new-minted coin.

I remember your etymological asides, one in particular that spoke to your role as an educator. You told us the derivation: Educere, to lead out or to lead astray. You seemed so proud. Others taught Plato, I think you fancied yourself a Socrates “corrupting the youth.” I figured, if this is what it means to be led astray, let my feet never touch another well-trod path—and arguably they never have.

I can’t imagine how many times you taught the same lesson. Or how many times you taught Ovid’s Pygmalion, which continues to be a living, breathing metaphor for every love I’ve had. How many times did you teach the homecoming scene in The Odyssey and “nostos”? It took me years to appreciate it. Then a friend and I were discussing King Lear, the scene at the cliffs of Dover when Edgar deceived his blind, wretched father Gloucester. “Hark, do you hear the sea?” Suddenly both works were given new life.

And suddenly the sea change makes more sense. I was never a very good student and I am still more ignorant than enlightened but I have always known myself to be transmutable. Surely, you had students like Caliban who’s only profit was they learned how to curse (which is not to denigrate the art of a searing insult). Were you fully conscious of your magic? Could you tell who was permanently transformed?

Poor, crabby, craggy Prospero, condemned to practice the art of revealing old truths to new eyes!

JS: Only in these dialogues with former students do I have any sense at all of having taught anyone anything in the last thirty years. Being open to transmutation is the same as being alive to metaphors, which have their own magic, as we are demonstrating. 

It’s interesting to think of the sea itself as the ultimate nostos, since in all likelihood the first amino acids and proteins bubbled out of some thermal vent at the bottom of the sea around 4 billion years ago. We have sea water in our salty blood. We are sea-changes waiting to happen. Why is it so satisfying to stare out to sea and to watch the waves come curling in, break, spread out, and draw back? And, as fearful as actual tempests must be, there is something completely thrilling about storms at sea. Slightly less thrilling—but still intriguing—is Prospero’s tempestuousness, his moodiness and sudden shifts of temperament. The two tempests are of course linked, not unlike Lear’s rages and the storms on the cliff.

So, the sea changes everything. And everything, at some point, changes into the sea. The way out of “life’s tumultuous circle” is the tempestuous sea and its changes. 

Is the point of human life to become both Pygmalion and statue, both Professor Higgins and Eliza Dolittle, both hammer and anvil, both creator and creature? We allow art and poetry to take a hand in our transmutations because we surmise that only great artists can be entrusted with the formation of our souls. We shun lesser spirits—and all the hideously-seductive paraphernalia of modern life—because we object to meddling and marring.

Are you both Prospero and Miranda, both “brave new world” and “’tis new to thee”?

LB: I trust everyone with the formation of my soul, it’s the very definition of being a romantic. I trusted you.

I would listen and read anything you said was important, because as a creature, there is no greater joy than to be impressed upon by a benevolent master or clever teacher. I would confess everything in writing and try my hand at some rough magic. Because Shakespeare has convinced me on the merits of sorcery, that nothing is more enchanting than to create and to be transformed and that the most potent forces are spoken into existence.

I’m reminded of a short dialogue by Edgar Allan Poe. A newly immortal angel describes his recently departed earth: “Its brilliant flowers look like a faery dream—but its fierce volcanoes like the passions of a turbulent heart.”

The elder angel replies, “They are! — they are! This wild star — it is now three centuries since, with clasped hands, and with streaming eyes, at the feet of my beloved — I spoke it — with a few passionate sentences — into birth. Its brilliant flowers are the dearest of all unfulfilled dreams, and its raging volcanoes are the passions of the most turbulent and unhallowed of hearts.”

Growing up by the ocean, one realizes quickly how powerful it is, especially during hurricane season. It’s violent, unpredictable, indifferent, deceptive. It’s eternally creative and irresistible—and still bound to the moon’s influence. That is where I escape to in my dreams and what I once dreamed of becoming.

It’s only natural to want to refashion the world as something it’s not but that far more accurately depicts what it really is. Why have words and breath if not to send breakers crashing to reveal new depths of the shoreline? Why break from the shackles of art when it bids us to enter “with a heart as willing as bondage e'er of freedom?” Done well, we don’t notice even the brutality.

JS: Of the merits of sorcery, Nietzsche observes the enchanting benevolism, even the curative powers of that tempestuous magic: “Art comes as a saving sorceress, expert at healing.” Just when we think we cannot stomach any more absurdity and despair—or Hamlet’s “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”—poetry shows up to spirit us through our misery. Here is the “holy chord” of a villanelle. 

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Regarding “the most potent forces are spoken into existence,” I am reminded of the ancient Greek magic swirling around the word logos. In the beginning was the Logos, and it was a strong, brown god, a Mississippi of fecundity and a joy forever. From Logos to Lolita.  

The only ‘thing’ I ever wanted to become was a writer and, when I read your words, over and over, mesmerized by your mind, and when I gradually gazelle forth to reply to you, then the rough magic arrives, expert at healing, and I [am] bound to sip the liquid horizon of logos. And to stay alive if only to hear your violin again. 

Dear dead dad used to read this poem to me, in his sad, sonorous voice, from the sounding depths of his beautifully-unhallowed heart.

Annabel Lee

  It was many and many a year ago,
   In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
   By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
   Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,
   In this kingdom by the sea,
But we loved with a love that was more than love—
   I and my Annabel Lee—
With a love that the wingèd seraphs of Heaven
   Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago,
   In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
   My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsmen came
   And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
   In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in Heaven,
   Went envying her and me—
Yes!—that was the reason (as all men know,
   In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
   Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
   Of those who were older than we—
   Of many far wiser than we—
And neither the angels in Heaven above
   Nor the demons down under the sea
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
   Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
   Of my darling—my darling—my life and my bride,
   In her sepulchre there by the sea—
   In her tomb by the sounding sea.

What did you once dream of becoming? Isn’t our dialogue at once escapism and its opposite—complete engagement. Isn’t a dialogic imagination—ours, now—the most becoming thing in the world? The play of minds as a kingdom by the sea, a kingdom by the sounding sea. 

LB: It is the most engaging escape I have had in a long time. The best are almost always into someone else’s mind, where everything is curious and new but also immediately familiar, like Poe’s meter.

It’s an amazing thing to find a kindred mind. To recognize yourself through the mirror of someone else. To find symmetry in each aspect, or to discover for the first time an unusual quality that is irresistibly attractive. That’s the charm of Prospero’s island, or rather Shakespeare’s mind, that all of the qualities are in one place, the admirable, the despicable, the laughable. It’s just as it appears in an honest reflection and exactly as it should be.

It reminds me of another Schubert song in the Wintereisse song cycle about a heartbroken wanderer who is cast out in a winter storm after losing his love to another man. He looks on a motionless river that is frozen in its banks, beneath the ice, a torrent rages. He asks, “My heart, in this river, can you recognize your image?”

You suggested through Nietzsche that art is a healer. She certainly has the power to cure, even if she hardly resembles a modern-day physician. For one, she never administers an anesthetic. She asks us to feel everything—so we don’t forget. She gives reason and order to otherwise meaningless pain. Perhaps that is what makes her office holy, that she can heal with a representation that is truer than any experience.

That is a power I dreamed to possess, not as a healer but as someone who could create a compelling representation. What did I once dream of becoming? All I have ever wanted was to breathe something into existence. Anything that could move a person to laughter or tears, anything that could change reality, whether by distortion or more honest means of deception. In short, to have my own Ariel.

On paper, I’m a writer, technically a reporter. I get paid for it, lord knows why. They’re just words, after all. My job is to string together thousands of them to inform without arousing any passions. Can you imagine anything more futile? Anyone who says information is power, has no concept of art. Of course it’s important and it has some motive force but not like drama or satire, not like metaphor, not like rhetoric.

There’s a pen and ink print on my wall of Demosthenes. It’s a reminder of how words and repeated appeals to a city’s historic identity kept an empire at bay—until they didn’t. On my bookshelf I have several works by and about Cicero that I treasure for similar reasons. Cicero, through the power of words, preserved the Roman republic against dictatorship and tyranny—until he didn’t. After all, who could understand the man? It was Greek to me.

In some respects, I dreamed of being like them. Really though, it was to have the power to create something out of breath. Will you help me do that?

JS: For once, a short answer: yes!