March 02, 2004

Caliban had a mirror?

Wilde's preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray has me thinking, particularly this:

The nineteenth century dislike of realism is the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.

The nineteenth century dislike of romanticism is the rage of Caliban not seeing his own face in a glass. The moral life of man forms part of the subject-matter of the artist, but the morality of art consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium.

What is this supposed to mean? I realize that I last read Shakespeare's Tempest two years ago, but I didn't remember a mirror. Caliban was a "monster," a slave of Prospero, who wanted to populate the island with Miranda (possibly through rape). That aside, I didn't remember Caliban looking in a glass. Thus, it must not have been literal.

Several websites (including Sparknotes) claim that Caliban is a mirror of Ariel, the other slave. Ariel is quite fetching and has powers used for good. Therefore, her obvious mirror would be her fellow slave, the ugly one. Is that it? Caliban and Ariel are one in slavery, and thus are like Dorian Gray, the beauty, and his ugly, monsterous portrait.

Either way, a literal reading says that the 19th century doesn't like realism because it is a reflection on their situation. Yet, they also dislike romanticism because they don't see it when they look in the mirror. So, the 19th century can't handle a true representation of themselves because realism is ugly, just like Dorian Gray couldn't stand his marred portrait. He looks at the portrait and wants it to reflect his beauty, but it doesn't. It isn't a romantic rendering. Thus, Caliban is angry because he doesn't see what he wants to see, just like Dorian Gray does not see in his portrait what he wants to see.

Wilde had more to say about Caliban in his play, The Decay of Lying. He writes:

To excuse themselves they will try end sheller under the shield of him who made Prospero the magician, and gave him Caliban and Ariel as his servants, who heard the Tritons blowing their horns round the coral reefs of the Enchanted Isle.... They will call upon Shakespeare--they always do--and will quote that hackneyed passage about Art holding the mirror up to Nature, forgetting that this unfortunate aphorism is deliberately said by Hamlet in order to convince the bystanders of his absolute insanity in all artmatters.
Here, Wilde connects Caliban and Ariel, so perhaps he is speaking of their dualism. However, he also brings up the line from Hamlet(Act 3, Scene 2), where art mirrors nature, something he proved almost true in Dorian Gray. In that case, art mirrored true nature, but it wasn't a true mirror as the face looking at the painting was beautiful.

But "Caliban's mirror" appears to mean much more. Kevin Marks, a much quoted blogger, explains the Internet to be a Caliban's mirror, meaning "What you find is what you look for." However, the people from the 19th century aren't finding what they are looking for. But, that is true, in that if look at the web with the idea in mind that it is bad, you'll certainly only see questionable material. If get online looking for good, then good sites you will find.

But, at the very least, I do know that Wilde is referring Shakespeare's Caliban. Maybe everyone else is referring to The Sea and the Mirror by Auden.

Anyway, the fire alarm is going off and apparently the dorm is flooding. Adios.

Posted by Julie Young at March 2, 2004 12:45 AM

Caliban smashed his mirror, appalled by his own reflection. He blamed the mirror for showing him his own dark soul.

This is what I was getting at in that post; I made the same point at more length on the NonZero blog.

Posted by: Kevin Marks at March 2, 2004 04:18 AM
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