Reflections on Crusoe as the “New Puritan”

October 12th, 2010

 Leopold Damrosch, Jr. in his essay Myth and Fiction in Robinson Crusoe  points out how “Defoe sets out to dramatize the conversion of the Puritan self, and he ends by celebrating a solitude that exalts autonomy instead of submission” (NCE 374).  While Crusoe “likens himself to the Prodigal Son, a favorite emblem for fallen man in Puritan homiletics” it appears that the novel “reward[s] him for enduring a mysterious test” (375).  Damrosch thus asserts this progression as a sort of reflection of the new “Puritanism” (375).  To him, “Puritanism was subsiding into bourgeois nonconformity, no longer an ideology committed to reshaping the world, but rather a social class seeking religious ‘toleration’ and economic advantage” (ibid).  Moreover, “what is new [and apparent in Robinson Crusoe] is the effective withdrawal of God from a structure which survives without him, though its inhabitants continue in all sincerity to pay him homage” (376).  

Daniel Defoe’s overt Protestant voice is apparent in Crusoe’s recognition of “particular providences” throughout the novel (96).  However, an astute reader will notice a shift from “an ideology committed to reshaping the world” ( 375).  God’s providence is acknowledged on its own accord but not in direct connection with nature.  Crusoe acknowledges God’s intervention when “God had miraculously caus’d this grain to grow without any help of seed sown, and that it was directed purely for [Crusoe’s] sustenance” (58).  Still, it is obvious to the reader that this occurrence is as consequence to dropping seeds on the ground.  Again, when confronted with the “cannibals,” Crusoe attests it to “a special providence that [he is] cast upon the side of the island where the savages never [come]” (119).  Yet, the reader surely notes how it must be the motion of the waves that positioned Crusoe on his side of the island.  However, both the waves and, as in the case of the barely and corn, the soil are not themselves connected to God.  The divorce of God from nature allows for a sort of autonomy.  If God is distinct from actual worldly phenomenon (in the case of Crusoe-nature) than man is free to manipulate the world.  Therefore, Crusoe labors to gain “all necessary things” thereby obtaining an “economic advantage” (375).     

Thus, Damrosch notes that “as in other Puritan narratives, separate moments are valued for their significance in revealing God’s will, and become elements in an emblematic pattern rather than constituents of a causal sequence” (377).  However, despite its religious overtones the novel seems to promote something other than Puritan ascetics.  Damrosch asserts that “Crusoe reflects the progressive desacralizing of the world that was implicit in Protestantism, and that ended (in Weber’s phrase) by disenchanting it altogether. Defoe’s God may work through nature, but he does so by “natural” cause and effect (the seeds that sprout), and nature itself is not viewed as sacramental” (379). 

I would guess that Damrosch, in the above quotation, is professing a branch a Marxist thought.  As Professor Buell notes in his email, Crusoe “became a mythic embodiment of capitalism, valuing only what he could make use of, always improving and improving, never (save for fleeting moments) resting.”  Moreover, Crusoe “became an equally mythic embodiment of autonomy.” Damrosch seems to argue that Crusoe reflected a shift in “the progressive desacralizing of the world” (379).  In doing so, man becomes autonomous and, therefore, a capitalist.    

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In the context of Crusoe as a new Puritan/Capitalist it would be interesting to examine the ways in which the early American colonizers follow a similar mold.

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A Technocritical Reading of Art in William Shakespeare’s Play The Tempest

October 2nd, 2010

Rebecca Banner

Professor Buell

English 399W

September 26, 2010

A Technocritical Reading of Art in William Shakespeare’s Play The Tempest

Prospero’s Sliding Scale between Magic and Technology

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “technology” first as “a discourse or treatise on an art or arts; especially a treatise on a practical art or craft.”  If this is true then William Shakespeare’s fifteenth century play, The Tempest, allows for many different types of technocritical readings. Throughout the play there is an ambiguous differentiation between magic and technology and the two tend to smear into each other.  Prospero, The Tempest’s protagonist, portrays the magic employed by the witch Sycorax as an inferior form of art in comparison to the skillful art of technology.  To Prospero the crudest magical art is marked by its inability to be empirically studied and the lack of restraint by those who employ it.  In contrast, superior art is one which could be crystallized by understanding and therefore wielded with careful precision. Frank Kermode, in his essay [Art vs. Nature] explains that Prospero’s “art is not only a beneficent magic in contrast to an evil one; it is the ordination of civility, the control of appetite, the transformation of nature by breeding and learning” (146).  Still, Prospero recognizes that his art is not the ideal art for it is never completely dissociated with magic.  Thus, in the plays conclusion, Prospero renounces the art form he previously employed in favor of the understood powers of social conditioning.  This essay will examine the gap Prospero posits between art as pure magic and art as pure technology.  To Prospero, magic is unable to be understood and is therefore rendered lacking in skill.  In contrast, technology is a skilled empirical art which can be manipulated by human means.

Throughout The Tempest, Prospero positions magic as the lowest form of art.  Prospero renders magic inferior to normal apparatuses of power and even “rough” because its mechanics are not wholly understood and thereby not able to be controlled by humans in a restrained manner (V, i, 50).  Magic is traditionally wielded by witches and, in the case of Shakespeare’s Tempest, the “damned witch Sycorax” is an embodiment of the purest and therefore the least desirable form of magic. (I, ii, 263).  Prospero introduces Sycorax by accusing her of “mischiefs manifold, and sorceries terrible,” thereby juxtaposing her pure magic with pejorative terms (I, ii, 264).  It seems that the summation of magic’s faults is its inaccessibility to be understood as a sort of text.  Thus, it is possible that it is called “earthy”[1] in reference to nature’s inability to be crystallized by scientific understanding in the fifteenth century (I, ii, 273).  Besides from its mysterious nature[2] Sycorax’s art is also lacking in her inability to control her emotions in its use.  Prospero condemns her “unmitigable rage” (I, ii, 276).  “Rage,” as an unrestrained emotion, is hazardous to one wielding magic because it is coupled with a loss of logic and can therefore cause unintended harm.  Thus, because Sycorax’s magic is both mysterious and unrefined it is portrayed by Prospero as the most inferior form of art. 

In continuation of this theme, Prospero wields his magic powers by the more empirical means of scholarship and calculated precision.  In our first encounter with Prospero, he asserts that the nature of his power, which he deems “art,” is “so safely ordered that there is no soul-/ no, not so much perdition as an hair/ betid to any creature in the vessel” which he targets (I, ii, 29-32).  Prospero ensures that his power is being administered as technically, or skillfully, as possible[3] and in doing so his art is portrayed as superior to the magical art of Sycorax. 

Prospero is always depicted as involved in books and scholarship.  He claims to have lost his dukedom because of his “study” (I, ii, 74) and has learned magic through his “book” (V, i, 57).  Besides from the “techni” or skill Prospero masters in using magic powers, we can also deduce that his book of magic is a product of a relatively new technology, the printing press.  Therefore, as Kermode points out, Prospero’s “art is [a] disciplined exercise of virtuous knowledge” (145).  As a result, the power is never completely as organic or “earthly” as the magical art of Sycorax (I, ii, 273). 

It is plausible that Prospero’s meticulous instructions also aid him in resisting the degradation of magic.  Firstly, when Prospero uses Ariel as a medium to assert his magical powers, he is sure to articulate that Ariel should be precise in enacting his commands.  For example, in Act I, Scene ii, Prospero instructs Ariel to “exactly do/ all points of my command” in order to deserve freedom (498-499).  Again, in later scenes of The Tempest, Ariel is probably lauded as “delicate” (IV, i, 48) and as possessing “diligence” because of his delicate, diligent, and therefore successful fulfillment of Prospero’s commands (V, i, 241).  Thus, in being conscientious about the precision of his work, Prospero resists the opaque inscrutability associated with magic.  As a result, he lauds himself for possessing “high charms” that indeed allow his “enemies” to be in his “power” (IV, i, 87-90).       

It is important to notice that although Prospero attempts to align his art with technology, he recognizes his inability to dissociate his powers from magic.  Therefore, in the conclusion of The Tempest Prospero announces that his “rough magic/ [he will] here abjure” (V, i, 50-51).  He decides to “break [his] staff/ [and] bury it” as well as “drown [his] book” (V, i, 54, 55, 57).  In doing so Prospero renounces his association with any proponent of magic and aligns himself, once again, within more human realms of art.  It is useful to point out that, in the epilogue, Prospero puts himself at the mercy of a different and perhaps more humanly manipulative form of art, the art of constructed appearances to achieve approval.  This art, which is understandable through studying psychology, puts Prospero in the hands of the audience’s applause in order to be released from his “bands” (Epilogue 9).  At this point, he chooses to forsake his association with magic in favor of an art form which he can skillfully craft.                

Barbara A. Mowat is right to note that The Tempest asks its readers to “come to terms with Prospero as…[possessing] power over the natural and supernatural worlds”[4] (168).  Furthermore, Shakespeare’s play suggests the difference between the art of magic and the art of technology.  To Prospero, the most disparaged form of art is a witch’s magic for it is completely supernatural and is therefore unable to be comprehensively understood and refined by humans.  Moreover, the mystery of magic is exacerbated by the volatile emotions of Sycorax.  With Sycorax, a mortal does not know the intricacies of the magic or trust that the one who wields it has control over herself.  In order to position himself as far from this sort of magical art as possible, Prospero is sure to use techni or skill in his magical art, thus rendering it more empirical.  Prospero studies books to access magic as well as emphasizes to Ariel that his artful magic must be completed precisely as instructed.  Still, Prospero is not satisfied with an art tinged by mystery and therefore denounces this type of art at the conclusion of the play.  In its place Prospero favors the art of manipulation and acknowledges the art of social control.  Thus, Prospero completes the shift of art from its most impenetrable form to its most skillful employment. 

Work Cited:

Shakespeare, William.  The Tempest, Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Peter Hulme andWilliam H.                   Sherman. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004. Print.

[1] This term is used by Prospero in describing Sycorax’s commands.

[2] By this I mean its inability to be comprehensively understood.

[3] According to The Oxford English Dictionary, “technology” is defined as “a discourse or treatise on an art or arts; esp. (in later use) a treatise on a practical art or craft.”

[4] However, I must point out that Mowat’s essay, Prospero, Agrippa, and Hocus Pocus, reworks this position.

Sharon Olds’s Summer Solstice, New York City

September 6th, 2010

                If we understand that a technocultural reading is derived from the ancient Greek definition of techni as an art or craft than Sharon Olds’s poem, Summer Solstice, New York City, is embalmed in technology.  On a large scale, the formation of a poem in it of itself is a deliberate art.  Olds positions line brakes throughout her sentences in a way that reminds the reader the poem is contrived.  In addition, the speaker of the poem hones in on minute details that attest to a sort of technology which is part of the man’s world.  In this way, the speaker almost indicates that the overabundance of technology is a main cause of the suicidal attempt.  Moreover, the poem contains blatant attributions to the negative possibilities of technology.  However, at the same time, in linking nature to technology the speaker might be said to be observing that, like the progression of nature, the progression of technology is inevitable. 

            Olds’s use of caesuras to enact the meaning of her sentence is surely a form of techni in itself.  For instance, the speaker stops line twenty-seven after the word “stopped.”  Similarly, the erratic fragmentation of the lines is, in a way, a mimetic of the fragmentation the suicidal subject has, most probably, experienced.  The rescue mission, which in this poem serves as a plausible antagonist, is titled “the huge machinery of the earth” (6).  Even someone on its side must wear a “bullet-proof vest” (8) to protect himself and his relationship with his “children” from a negative but unavoidable side effect of technology, the gun (10).  Thus, technology, in a more conventional sense of the word, is portrayed as a harmful and even lethal force.   The suicidal man is, both physically and perhaps metaphorically, pinned “against the wall of the chimney,” a paradigm of a technology that harms nature via pollution (34).  A member of the rescue squad immediately provides the man with a “cigarette,” which is crafted instead of naturally produced and is now known to cause deadly diseases (35).  Thus, the suicidal man is stopped from a suicide but then given a form of toxin that could kill him, albeit slowly, anyways.  In reading the poem it is interesting to notice the references to nature and pastoral times.  The speaker links “machinery” to “earth” (6) and the “red glowing ends” of cigarettes to the “tiny campfires…lit at night/ back at the beginning of the world” (39-40).  Perhaps these juxtapositions allow for the understanding that the production of technology is just another natural process in its inevitability.

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