The Matter of Sounds

By Tomlinson, Gary | Shakespeare Studies, Annual 2000 | Go to article overview

The Matter of Sounds


Tomlinson, Gary, Shakespeare Studies


Caliban: 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 sometimes 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.

(3.2.133-41)

CALIBAN'S FAMOUS SET-PIECE in The Tempest does not lead where its beginning seems to point. From an enumeration of sounds, songs, and musical instruments, he veers toward a vision of the heavens bursting with palpable riches. From a state of sharp, wakeful cognizance, he drifts toward sleep and dreams.

Somewhere far behind Caliban's dream stands the archetype for all musical dreams through the Middle Ages and Renaissance: Cicero's Somnium scipionis, dispersed widely enough in Macrobius's Commentaries to become a commonplace in praises of music and its powers. If, however, Scipio's dream is a straightforward Neoplatonic anamnesis, leading the soul back through the musical spheres toward its heavenly origins, Shakespeare's somnium calibanis is something else again. It does not point upward toward musical quintessence and, finally, transcendent immateriality. Instead Caliban's noises and songs seem positively to induce the opposition at the heart of his dream: immaterial heavens versus the too-solid riches they would shower down on him. Sonic forces seem to be positioned here at a liminal meeting-point of matter and nonmatter. From this place they confront interpretations of early modern ontologies that would straightforwardly separate the two.

Caliban's positioning of sounds and songs would not have surprised a Renaissance Neoplatonist. The most influential sonic ontology of the period, Marsilio Ficino's, consistently emphasized a similar liminality.(1) In his often reprinted De vita libri tres, an elaboration on Plotinus dedicated to therapeutic and astrological magic, Ficino arranged mundane materials and phenomena of the human soul alongside the heavenly spheres whose influxes they might attract. Words, songs, and sounds (undifferentiated from one another: a point to which I will return) occupied the middle space, dedicated to the sun. Beneath them came more or less solid material substances--metals, plants, vapors, and so forth (associated with the moon, Mercury, and Venus)--while above them ranged immaterial psychic phenomena: conceptions of the imagination (Mars), the deliberations of reason (Jupiter), and intuitive understanding (Saturn).

Also in De vita, and elsewhere throughout his later writings, Ficino connected sounds and songs to the human spiritus. This too marked the borderline positioning of sounds, since spirit was the most liminal of human faculties. In Ficino's view, capping a history of pneumatology reaching back to ancient times, spirit joined body and soul--and hence, since the human organism was located at the midpoint of the cosmos, material and immaterial realms all told. Ficino's ambivalence in defining spirit shows that it did not admit of identification as either matter or nonmatter; it was, he wrote, "almost not a body but a soul; or again, almost not a soul but a body."

The implications of this ambivalent spirit are far-reaching. It cannot be equated with Descartes's animal spirits, the most subtle materials of the human body (though these grew out of Ficinian and other pneumatological traditions). These later spirits remain stolidly material, however thin they might be; because of this they cannot come in contact with the immaterial soul. In affirming the impossibility of such contact they inaugurate the dualism of the Cartesian legacy. Ficino's spirit, instead, escapes dualism through its ineffable liminality. It suggests the possibility that Renaissance materialities were always in touch with nonmatter--if in ways difficult to perceive from a post-Cartesian perspective. …

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