This morning, another bright and hot one here, easing toward the end of torpid July, I sit in my study, sip coffee, listen to “Bolero” move ineluctably toward its climax, that great crescendo at its end. I check my e-mail. I have one from a literary friend, an extremely bright man, one who can write wonderfully well. An austere, even strict, New Englander, he knows the power of brevity, the beauty of the lucid and succinct sentence. Somehow he manages to tolerate with courteous grace my Southern tendency to indulge in rhetoric. We make a good pair: “Book ends,” he calls us. He wants to talk about some thoughts he’s had on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He tells me he just finished reading the play again. He talks a great deal about the scene where Puck gives Bottom an ass’s head and then, at the orders of Oberon (the King of the Fairies), ensorcels Titania into falling in love with the creature, this half man, half ass. Afterwards, when all is sorted out, Bottom will refer to this eerie episode as “Bottom’s dream.”
I don’t want to read too much into this episode, but sometimes I think that we human beings are Bottom, stupid and ignorant Bottom, beneath all our pretense nothing more than an ass, a creature, a both arrogant and fawning creature who wants the world to love it, some fairy princess to confirm our worth. We want the universe acknowledge us, to “look at me,” as Kirby said a month or six weeks ago in one his blogs. We want some transcendent being far beyond our pale mortality to nod at us, even as we scratch at our hairy and itchy ass-faces. (It’s mere coincidence, but last night I read the chapter “The Excremental Vision” in Norman O. Brown’s Life Against Death in which Brown argues that Swift’s “scatological” poetry is not the product of a madman but rather that of a man who understands how pitifully pretentious human beings can be.)
Says the mesmerized Titania—she is madly in love with Bottom–to Bottom transformed into an ass:
I’ll give thee fairies to attend on thee;
And they shall fetch thee jewels from the deep,
And sing while thou on pressed flowers dost sleep;
And I will purge thy mortal grossness so
That thou shalt like an airy spirit go.
I imagine Shakespeare writing these lines, the stink of London and the city’s attendant horrors all about him, the grinding poverty, the suffering of humanity impossible to avoid. Surely Shakespeare, if any man ever did, understood the truth of the human condition. “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods, / They kill us for their sport,” a newly-taught Gloucester—he has just had his eyes gouged out–says in King Lear. Yet men dream of fairies, of worlds far removed from the one they live in. Who among us would not like some immortal being to purge our mortal grossness so that we could go about eternally like an airy spirit, instead of dragging this fading body about with us, this hunk of flesh that will betray us? Who has not dreamed of what happened to Bottom: to be transformed?
Who would not like to cry out joyfully for Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed and have the four fairies come to his beckoning, fairies fairly glittering with immortality?
Years ago, when I was a serious student of lit a rah choor, confident it held the secret to the human predicament, the great secret, the girl next door had named her four kittens Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed. I would be writing at my desk at dusk when she would step outside her door and call to her kittens to come home. I would step to the window and watch the four kittens come bounding out of the brush, a rush of meowing, a flurry of fur. That’s as close as I have come to see airy spirits flash through the twilight.
The truth is, nothing can purge us of our mortal grossness. No Titania, the Queen of the Fairies eager to redeem us, awaits us, and if the night wind utters meaning, it sings not of comely spirits, delicate fairy creatures. No, it moans of a man’s fate. In truth, it does not sing or moan. The wind simply is, nothing more than air moving.
The night is empty of gentle fairies and elves, except in our imaginations, but most of us start when we hears a strange noise outside our window, out there where the big trees stand in shadow and where we suspect chaos lurks. The wind blows over the boneyard, rustling the tendrils of green summer grass that curl over the edge of the grave marker. No matter where a person’s imagination takes him or her, sooner or later, as Becker says, the experiential burden will settle in once again, this old maddening and terrifying contradiction of individuation in finitude.
Earlier in the play, Shakespeare has Lysander speak to the human condition, the briefness of joy. Whatever a man cherishes:
War, death or sickness did lay siege to it,
Making it momentary as a sound,
Swift as a shadow, short as any dream,
Brief as the lightning in the collied night,
That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and earth,
And ere a man hath power to say “Behold!”
The jaws of darkness do devour it up:
So quick bright things come to conclusion
The truth has emptied life of fairies. We are mortal creature under the mute skies. Consolation, perhaps, exists, some kind of reconciliation with the truth. Does beauty lurk in the guttural cry of the lone crow crying at dusk as it beats it way to roost?