Monday, September 20, 2010

Half sick of shadows


Who is this woman? Her name is on the prow of her boat: The Lady of Shalott. (Click to enlarge.)

Yes, it's Tennyson's Lady of Shalott, from the poem of 1842, here illustrated by John William Waterhouse in 1888. By some unspecified curse this lovely maiden was confined to a tower…
Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Through the wave that runs for ever
By the island in the river
…near Camelot, where, forbidden to look out the window, she observed the world in a mirror and wove what she saw into a tapestry.

So what is she doing in the boat, with her hand-stitched creation?

One day, Sir Lancelot rode by her tower alone. She saw him in the mirror and -- "half sick of shadows" -- couldn't resist turning to see him unreflected.
His broad clear brow in sunlight glow'd;
On burnish'd hooves his war-horse trode;
From underneath his helmet flow'd
His coal-black curls as on he rode…
The mirror cracked. She left her loom, descended from the tower, found a boat, inscribed her name on the prow, and…
Lying, robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right --
The leaves upon her falling light --
Thro' the noises of the night
…cast off to drift downstream to Camelot ---and to Lancelot.

But curses are not to be foiled.
For ere she reach'd upon the tide
The first house by the water-side,
Singing in her song she died,
The Lady of Shalott.
We are all of us in a way the Lady of Shalott, all of us who seek to create an image of the world, artists, poets, scientists. We perceive the world through the filter of our limited senses, our biologically evolved brains, our nurtured preconceptions. We weave our tapestries, knowing that our creations are a reflection removed from reality. Our "curse" is to be in love with the real, yet never able to embrace it except in the cold glass of conceptualization. Our legacy? To be found in a boat lodged among the reeds, our tapestry draped across the thwart, with Camelot yet somewhere further down the stream, glistening, beckoning, inescapably out of reach.

But, ah, there's that gorgeous tapestry.

There is another curse, self made, and that is to mistake the mirrorworld for the world outside the window, to fail to recognize the contingency of our conceptualizations, to forego an honest seeking for the falsely found, and -- most ominously -- to want to impose our own mirrorworld on others.