Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Quatrain XLVI

Edward FitzGerald elaborates on his reference to the "Game" in the previous quatrain. In this quatrain, he diminishes the human race considerably. Our significance in the universe is no more than figures devised for entertainment.

First Edition: Quatrain XLVI

For in and out, above, about, below,

‘Tis nothing but a Magic Shadow-show

Play’d in a Box whose Candle is the Sun,

Round which we Phantom Figures come and go.

Second Edition: Quatrain LXXIII

We are no other than a moving row

Of visionary Shapes that come and go

Round with this Sun-illumined Lantern held,

In Midnight by the Master of the Show;

Fifth Edition: Quatrain LXVIII

We are no other than a moving row

Of Magic Shadow-shapes that come and go

Round with the Sun-illumined Lantern held,

In Midnight by the Master of the Show;

FitzGerald made extensive changes in wording when he published the Second Edition; however, the meaning is still the same. We are not real, but simply phantoms devised for the entertainment of the Master of the Show, a figure which does not appear in the first version. Instead, we are puppets who entertain some unknown viewer.

One difference is that in the first edition, the universe is included,

“For in and out, above, about, below,

‘Tis nothing but a Magic Shadow-show”

while in the later editions, it is only we who are the figures of a Magic show. The Candle which stands for the sun has become a “sun-illumed Lantern.” I think the significance might be that in the later editions the Master of the Show is part of the universe, perhaps a creature like us, but not the creator of the universe. This concept might be considered heretical or blasphemous by powerful religious figures and, therefore, dangerous.

There is another difference between the first and later editions. The first edition ends with a period, suggesting that this quatrain is complete. Later editions end with a semicolon, which indicates that the thought is not complete in the quatrain, but we must join it with the next quatrain for the full thought.

The “Magic Shadow-show” plays a role in another work, Proust’s monumental In Search of Lost Time. Early in the first volume, Swan’s Way, the narrator reminisces about his childhood, and how, when he was especially nervous, usually around bedtime, his parents would place a magic lantern atop the lamp in his bedroom. It was a multi-sided box with removable glass panels that had a picture story painted on them. The heat from the lamp would cause the device to rotate, so that the figures cast on the wall would traverse the room as the device rotated.

What seems most apt for this quatrain is that the figures had no real substance of their own, but would fill out or flatten according to what they were cast upon (such as a curtain or a dresser or a flat wall) as they traversed the room. They would take their reality, their fullness, from their environment, and not by any virtue of their own. In addition, the figures and their adventures were created by and existed only at the whim of someone else, the “Master of the show” in the second and fifth editions.

FitzGerald’s analogy also echoes that of Plato’s Cave, which Plato describes in his Republic. It is one of the Socratic dialogues in which, according to the Wikipedia entry, ”Socrates describes a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall by things passing in front of a fire behind them, and begin to ascribe forms to these shadows. According to Socrates, the shadows are as close as the prisoners get to viewing reality. He then explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall do not make up reality at all, as he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the mere shadows seen by the prisoners.”

In this quatrain, the poet-narrator is clearly Socrates’ philosopher for he alone has detected the real nature of the shadows and has returned to enlighten the prisoners—the rest of us.

That we are mere figures of entertainment refers also back to the previous quatrain in which the poet-narrator encourages us to “Make Game of that which makes as much of Thee.” (Quatrain XLV, First Edition).

I suspect this quatrain would be very disturbing to those who believe that the universe was created solely for us, a place wherein we are tested to determine the goal for our immortal souls. Instead, we are reduced to mere shadow figures, and our sorrows and joys are nothing more than entertainment for others. In today’s terms, we are all figures in sitcoms and dramas produced solely to fill in the gap between commercials.

My preference? It would have to be for the First Edition, as usual. The First Edition version makes us part of the universe whereas from the Second Edition on, we just seem to be figures inserted there at the whim of the Master of the Show.

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