Egocentrism and Reflection in “The Lady of Shalott”

It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.” — Oscar Wilde

Painting: John William Waterhouse

A most engaging aspect of “The Lady of Shalott,”† and of Tennyson and the Victorians generally, consists in a reliance upon, even a synthesis of, the two dominant predecessors of the Victorians in the history of ideas, the Enlightenment and Romanticism. In the Enlightenment, beginning with René Descartes, epistemology replaced metaphysics as “first philosophy”; the subject-object divide meshed into one laid the foundation for subjectivism of various kinds. The latter phenomenon seems to contradict the original intent of Descartes, however, as he endeavored to secure an absolute foundation for objective knowledge. It seems when philosophers try to rearrange the structure of reality — and how mankind relates to it — they lose reality itself and, with it, the classical objective of philosophy, self-knowledge. The loss (many considered — and consider — it gain) initiated by Descartes found British counterparts in Locke and Berkeley, for whom only Ideas carried the weight of the real (Kreeft 19). The empiricist David Hume, however, made way for the epistemological idealism of Immanuel Kant and, as will be addressed later, the Romantic imagination. Humean “matters of fact,” only knowable by sense-observation, disabled the human mind from knowing universals — e.g., oneness, beauty, that “all men are mortal”, etc. — because one cannot sense universals (18). Trying to work with Hume but avoid his skepticism, Kant said that the necessary and sufficient conditions of a possible object, solely universals of the mind, form the world “as an artist constructs or forms a work of art,” whereas in classical philosophy the world formed and informed the mind (18). In such an epistemology, the mind structures and imposes, rather than receives, meanings from things-in-themselves (18). Cartesian egocentrism found fruition in this so-called “Copernican Revolution in Philosophy,” creating the categories and axioms necessary to enable one to live under the tyranny of the Subject without a lived contradiction (19). Chesterton observed that philosophers such as these ask us to but grant them one unnatural twist of the mind, and thereby they will sort out for us the whole of reality, founded on that erroneous proposition (119–20). Hume’s error was to assume that immediate sensation is the only source of grounded knowledge, applying a slippery slope to the commonsense principle that all knowledge derives from the senses; this prejudicial denial of the mind’s ability to abstract form from matter consisted in reducing all sense-experience to this sense-experience. Kant’s error was to salvage Hume’s error by having the real world immanent in the subject rather than self-transcendent, reaching out and directed toward the object.

This essay considers “The Lady of Shalott” in this context of the history of ideas, and aims to examine the aspects of the poem which illustrate the predicament of modern egocentrism. Phenomenology, however, receives chief consideration, on account of its ability to get one out of said predicament, and because the poem actually anticipates crucial phenomenological themes, thus providing a sort of allegory by which one might grasp the consequences of egocentric philosophy.

“The Lady of Shalott,” in whose “mirror clear … shadows of the world appear” (2.46–8), one may take as an allegorical figure for the egocentric predicament. Taking the poem as a kind of fairy-story analogue, an imaginative story-symbol of this intellectual malady, Lady Shalott finds herself weaving “the mirror’s magic sights” (2.65). Suggesting a positive and a negative value in the mirror — a sense of arousal in wonder, and yet the sense of distance and detachment from reality, and so reminiscent of Plato (cf. Abrams 30, 33) — she does not see things themselves, but rather “shadows of the world appear.” What in one age the intelligentsia reserves exclusively, in a later age the masses hold dogmatically, albeit in pieces, generalized and simplified. Thus Lady Shalott — in her literal temporality (i.e., within Tennyson, and not, anachronistically, in her medieval setting) — hears the “whisper” from the Enlightenment say, “a curse is on her” (2.40). Because people tend to take the word of science on authority rather than on reason, “she knows not what the curse may be” (2.42), allowing her to weave “steadily” (2.43). By this “curse,” the aforementioned egocentric predicament, the invisible hand of Science expects her to accept humbly the verity of her predicament, that she (and everyone else), while believing that what she sees manifests the world, nonetheless suffers under a naive illusion. The curse “is on her if she stay” (2.40): she has the inkling of the curse of she knows not what — although “in her web she still delights” (2.64), comfortably unknowing — yet if she does not leave the tower, she equally suffers under a curse. Reminiscent of the call to “enlightenment,” she suffers under a curse until she Awakens to Science, which will reveal to her many more curses under which she suffers — as, for instance, that even outside the tower she cannot know things-in-themselves — in which case Enlightenment thinking contributes to (or causes?) the problem it purports to solve: enlightenment to the realization of how little one can really know. Lady Shalott represents the subtle tragedy of egocentrism, such that while no certainty exists about the extramental world (subjectivism), one cannot rest from incessant calculation over its mere possibility (rationalism).

Two notions, however, enter Lady Shalott’s “mirror clear” to arouse dissatisfaction, proper to, in this case, the weaver, or to the artist generally — death and love. Lady Shalott finds herself most deeply affected by the “mirror’s magic sights” just when a “funeral, with plumes and lights and music” (2.67–8), enters the mirror. Living something of an imaginative inexistence, her act of creation represents a lived-in world, yet she takes no part in fully living, nor, for that matter, in fully dying. She could not hope, in her tower, to end in a heroic death, as may “bold Sir Lancelot” (3.77). Nor within the tower may the people of Camelot, “with plumes and lights and music,” celebrate and dignify her death, if it ever comes, with a funeral. Egocentrism annihilates that bridge between self and other which is the material world. Having destroyed the material body along with it, only the immortal soul remains, destroying even death. Lady Shalott cannot fully appreciate life, having neither full awareness of, nor fully enjoying, the act of being; she cannot even place a value on life’s worthiness to live, since predicates of value found themselves on the thing valued. The absence of love from her life, however, pushes her to the edge. Cognizant of her inexistence “when the moon was overhead, came two young lovers lately wed” (2.69–70), and only then declares, “‘I am half sick of shadows’” (2.71). As did the privation of death, so the privation of love results from egocentrism, and they possess a fundamental reciprocity. A cynic might characterize the Enlightenment by the following, not unjustifiable, formula: The epistemological and political project to isolate every man from himself and other men. The isolation which egocentrism causes cuts off each person from love and death, arguably the two predominant forces of nature, history, anthropology, and certainly art. Only “‘half sick of shadows,’” the Lady cannot enjoy the experiential fullness of love nor the existential texture of sickness and suffering. Death lapses into insignificance without the shared otherness of love, which shines upon and through lovers surely as the “moon … overhead.” The Lady of Shalott’s mirror, that bane of narcissistic reversal, determines her entire existence. For one ordinally experiences life, then art; love, then death. As surely as Lancelot binds himself to his straightforward noblesse, the Lady of Shalott is bound by her “mirrornesse,” by which everything for her occurs backwards. She does not truly live till after “she left the web, she left the loom,” and does not receive Lancelot’s praise of her “‘lovely face’” till after her death (4.169). The mirror itself is her curse.

These problems had at least some impetus for the Romantics’ spirit of rebellion against the so-called Age of Reason. Through the influence of post-Kantian idealists such as Novalis and Fichte, Romanticism in art sprung. However, Kant’s precession makes itself evident. Those inspired by Fichte “made the work of art out to be, in a fashion even more absolute than the world of perception, an expression of unadulterated spirit” (Abrams 90). Novalis, in his Fragmente, wrote that in all genuine art “‘an idea, a spirit is realized, produced from within outward’, and a work of art ‘is the visible product of an ego’”; poetry in particular “‘is the representation of the spirit, of the inner world in its totality. Even its medium, words, indicates this, for they are the outer revelation of that inner realm’” (90). The latter thinkers seem to take the immanent world of Kant as a presupposition, albeit, in this case, applied to aesthetics as opposed to pure epistemology (not that Kant didn’t have his own thoughts on aesthetics). In Kant we have a “mind-forming-world epistemology” which mimics art. In Romantic aesthetics, we have art mimicking the Kantian “mind-forming-world epistemology.” The mirror reverse of the Cartesian disappointment — i.e., collapse into subjectivism by the misguided pursuit of objectivism — occurs in Romanticism: though offspring to thinkers who saw themselves carrying on the scientific spirit of the Enlightenment, Romanticism sought in its artistic practitioners to overthrow that spirit. Romanticism endeavored to retain the subjectivity of imagination and scrap the project to attain transcendental objectivity. But the Romantics still seemed to rely on sensuous experience — their reverence for Nature takes that fact for granted — which enabled them, by retaining subjectivity, to reinstate objectivity.

The intriguing point about Hume’s doctrine of “matters of fact” — similar to Kant’s “synthetic propositions” (Kreeft 18) — consists in that this inability to abstract or induce universals from particulars lays the foundation, in a sense, for the fantastic imagination. We have, for instance, no proof that fairyland, elves, or Atlantis do not or never did exist; no argument or wealth of evidence could determine such with absolute certainty or indubitable necessity. Because we cannot “sense” the entirety of data dislodging the possibility, there is no intrinsic absurdity in the notion that by pushing to the very back of the coat closet one might find Narnia instead of plyboard; nor does multiplicity of hitting plyboard in the past imply anything negating such a possibility. The consequent imaginative freedom Romanticism acquired from the Enlightenment finds fruition in the mirror-concept, since the tentative sensate world serves as the originator for the ideational imagination which mirrors represent. To make this point more clear, the analogue of mirror-reflection to the Romantic imagination proper is epitomized by George MacDonald, another Victorian author, in his “faerie romance,” Phantastes:

Why are all reflections lovelier than what we call the reality? — not so grand or so strong, it may be, but always lovelier? Fair as is the gliding sloop on the shining sea, the wavering, trembling, unresting sail below is fairer still. Yea, the reflecting ocean itself, reflected in the mirror, has a wondrousness about its waters that somewhat vanishes when I turn towards itself. All mirrors are magic mirrors. The commonest room is a room in a poem when I turn the glass…. In whatever way it may be accounted for, of one thing we may be sure, that this feeling is no cheat; for there is no cheating in nature and the simple unsought feelings of the soul. (123)

While Anodos admits the profundity of reality, he sees more beauty in the reflection: things always appear lovelier through either an artistic medium or mirror-like reflection, which, in turn, enhances one’s perception of the reflected reality. Without the reflective art-impression of something, one may wonder whether the appreciation of beauty in the natural world would ever surface in the first place. Anodos also saw many women through either mirrors or encased in various kinds of transparent stone, out of which he always had to coax them; similarly, Lancelot sees the Lady of Shalott only through the reflection in his shield, and she only sees him in her mirror (3.73–81). The implication that one only sees an object of desire through reflective surfaces suggests the mirror, or “reflection” simply, has some fundamental situational capacity. (Perhaps this post-Enlightenment eros is for “object-ivity” itself?) Tennyson and MacDonald, of course, wrote after many of the Rationalists, Idealists, and Romantics had their way, and for various cultural reasons — such as the rapid growth of literacy, the press, and education in the nineteenth century — both Enlightenment and Romantic trains of thought show through Tennyson’s work. Romanticism, in fact, one might consider the temporary artistic fruition of a long age of rationalism, similar to the Renaissance fruition of the rational Middle Ages. However, these ages of expansion end in decadence, the 1890's just as the late Renaissance, and decadence often results from excess in morals (puritanism or libertinism) and intellect (rationalism or nihilism). Sanity requires a just equilibrium.

One should appreciate that the aforementioned issues go back as far as Plato and Aristotle, Cicero and Plotinus (Abrams 35, 43), and shouldn’t receive consideration as exclusively modern. Historically, art seems to have had just as intimate a relationship with philosophy as science has. Prior to the Enlightenment, Renaissance Platonists “located the Ideas both within the mind and without,” and

it is a matter of consequence, for both aesthetic theory and practice, whether the Ideas are to be sought for in their own ideal space or by turning the eye of the mind inward. In the latter instance, the work is conceived to imitate something inside the artist himself; and when its criterion is thus made both intuitive and introspective, art readily slips its moorings in the public world of sense experience and begins to rely instead on a vision which is personal and subjective. (43)

From Classical to Renaissance aesthetics, the difficulty, then, has been whether art principally imitates transcendental ideas as in Plato, or empirical objects as in Aristotle. “The Lady of Shalott” could be read alongside Plato alone, as he “adverts repeatedly to the analogy of the reflector, either a mirror, or water, or else those less perfect simulacra of things that we call shadows” (30), and Plato’s overall conception of poetry holds that it functions like a mirror (33).

The discussion of the Romantic conception of mirror-reflection and its introduction of the need for equilibrium has been necessary to illustrate how “The Lady of Shalott” functions as a very subtle anticipation to, and expository tool for, the foremost reaction to subjectivism in the early twentieth century, the transcendental phenomenology of Edmund Husserl. Alas, the Lady of Shalott, because of her “curse,” cannot be saved, though she will teach by example the consequences of the modern project.

Phenomenology — although itself commonly accused, not always without justification, of the more traditional idealism — unlike the Enlightenment which sought (for the sake of gross simplicity and brevity) a “transcendental objectivity,” explored transcendental subjectivity. The latter term denotes the “transcendental self-experience” of the fundamental doctrine in phenomenology of intentionality: all consciousness is consciousness of something, whether of a thing, event, place, time, state-of-affairs, etc. (Sokolowski 8). Whereas consciousness in Enlightenment rationalism and German idealism served as a kind of “Idea Jar,” phenomenological consciousness always has a teleological, world-directed orientation. One never knows subjective consciousness in and of itself, but only in the other, in the object, even if the object is an abstraction (e.g., a mathematical entity, such as “F = ma”; or an idea, such as “freedom”) (58).

To relate this to “The Lady of Shalott” requires a brief digression on the two “attitudes” of phenomenology. The natural attitude consists of simple, lived experience, and also the operative theoretical or scientific presuppositions we attach to things or situations. One enters the transcendental attitude (a.k.a. the phenomenological, or simply philosophical, attitude) to contemplate the intentions of the natural attitude, by effecting a temporary suspension of natural-attitude presuppositions. The distinction results from the need to make explicit what we mean when we distinguish between philosophy and prephilosophical life, something thinkers since Descartes rarely did, as they sought to have philosophy replace prephilosophical life and reasoning (63). What philosophy has since time immemorial called “reflexivity” essentially means the same as what is in phenomenology called the “transcendental attitude”: the phenomenological attitude is philosophical reflection. The natural attitude and the transcendental attitude rely on one another (42–51).

The Lady of Shalott bears unequivocal resemblance, by her “perch” looking down on Camelot, to the transcendental attitude, for she transcends the domain of lived-in, natural-attitude Camelot with a view of the whole. Her mirror analogously stands for the reflective intending-stance taken by the phenomenologist when in the transcendental attitude. She represents the philosophical detachment of the disinterested spectator, constituting by the imaginative variation of her act-of-weaving, the pure ideals — the separated essences of language referring to existents — within the mirror.

One gets to philosophical reflection from the straightforwardly intended natural attitude by employing Husserl’s formidable phenomenological reduction. An illustration should suffice to describe the operation of the reduction, to avoid unnecessary technicalities. Looking through a window late in the day, or on a well-moonlit night, one sees what lies beyond the window, out of doors. In this scenario one takes the window for granted. But if one simply “reduces” what lies beyond to the window, becoming cognizant of the window itself, one then beholds an image and reflection of oneself — the window is now simultaneously a mirror. In such a scenario, the looked-through blends with the looked-at. Seeing now what lies beyond the glass blended with one’s own reflection—seeing oneself and the objects outside the window in a single unified image, seeing the looked-through and the looked-at as one—this shows a semblance between mirror reflection and phenomenological reflection: the objects are seen as balanced between the self-relational and the self-forgetful. In the phenomenological reduction and its resultant reflection, the empirical ego and the transcendental ego — i.e., the self as truth-object and the self as truth-knower, respectively, which manifest two aspects of the identical self — become “reduced” to the transcendental ego alone, such that the principal concern in philosophical reflection is truth. Recognizing this conceit between “mirror reflection” and “phenomenological reflection,” one should recall the previous discussion of the Romantic imagination; the question asked by Anodos in Phantastes was why reflections always seem lovelier than the reality. Like the phenomenological reduction which reduces all concerns to truth-concerns, mirror reflection reduces three dimensions to two dimensions, such that the principal concern in mirror reflection is beauty — not the scientific schematizations, nor the sheer utility or practical nature, of things. Both the “red-cross knight” and the Lady behold each other’s “loveliness” through a reflection. As in phenomenological reflection all concern is reduced to truthfulness, so in mirror reflection all concern is reduced to beauty.

The following selection from the Preface to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception captures the essence of Lady Shalott’s situation, as though from her own tongue:

Equally constantly I weave dreams round things. I imagine people and things whose presence is not incompatible with the context, yet who are not in fact involved in it: they are ahead of reality, in the realm of the imaginary. If the reality of my perception were based solely on the intrinsic coherence of ‘representations’, it ought to be for ever hesitant and, being wrapped up in my conjectures on probabilities. I ought to be ceaselessly taking apart misleading syntheses, and reinstating in reality stray phenomena which I had excluded in the first place. But this does not happen. The real is a closely woven fabric. (xi)

In her transcendental perspective, Lady Shalott does not weave arbitrarily. Her quilting reflects and derives from the range of potencies latent in the things themselves, relative only to the identities of specific phenomena. To restate Wilde’s formula in different words: it is the phenomenological, and not the natural, that art really mirrors. The mirror stands for phenomenological “anticipation,” the sense of what will come in futurity, and Lady Shalott anticipates living what her mirror reflects and the essences she weaves.

The question, surely, now becomes: what about her “curse”? Doesn’t her anticipation simply result from being “‘half sick of shadows’”? The Lady of Shalott’s initial predicament consisted in that her ability to see all was limited to what was shown to her through her mirror which reflects the natural world. Whereas the appropriate attitude of lived experience is the natural, her “curse” consists in that she lives in the transcendental. She lives in a high tower, in her contemplation-by-artistry, constituting, but never experiencing, the lived-in world. One may safely live in the natural attitude and never enter the transcendental attitude, but living in the transcendental attitude consists in a reversion to Enlightenment and Romantic solipsism, taking for granted its natural foundation. Because she sat within this transcendental perch with perpetuity, Lady Shalott suffered the lack of the natural attitude which the transcendental attitude must work from to gain any wisdom. The natural attitude — the world of the “red-cross knight” outside the tower — need not compete with the transcendental attitude of the inner tower, the world as-reflected-upon. Before “she left the web … left the loom,” her artisan task may have made the natural-attitude existence more richly manifold for those who might enjoy her woolen creations; by remaining there, however, she achieved a passive inexistence for herself, which reduced her role as a dative of the manifested world to a solipsism of “shadows.”

Relating this to the earlier discussion of love and death, the weaver, being an artist, weaves what she lacks. Those in a romantic relationship do not write love poetry, and no one weaves a memorial quilt, or writes a eulogy, for their own funeral. Whether in love or death, the Lady of Shalott would become the subject of art rather than in a residual and subjective process of imitation. Though she lived as a phenomenologist in her transcendental perch, once she abandoned her vocation, ceasing to create, to see “the helmet and the plume,” she died an existentialist, as it were, going from the absolutist extreme of egocentrism to the relativist extreme of sheer alterity. It seems the gods gave her only two options: create, or die. Her “curse” consisted in the false alternatives, on the one hand, of the egocentric predicament (either detach oneself from reality, or remain a naive peasant) and, on the other hand, of the existentialist predicament (infatuate oneself with the world, or suffer inauthenticity). The meaning of “transcendence” in transcendental phenomenology consists in that while the mind self-transcends to the world, it can also transcend from the world, to the tower of Shalott, weaving a synthesis by giving due respect to both the natural and the transcendental intending-stances. The phenomenological dichotomy achieves a balance which could have saved Lady Shalott. Her story stands as an allegory of the consequences of the egocentric dichotomy: by making philosophy replace prephilosophical experience, life lapses into insignificance. By retaining the perverse premise concerning the nature of thought, Lady Shalott, in leaving the transcendental for the natural, assumed her action an all-inclusive cop-out on intellectual discovery. Adopting this rationalist, all-or-nothing conception of philosophy, she shows that thinking in such a way amounts to a false dilemma between extremes — that choosing only one extreme amounts to an inexistence, whether by not fully living, or by literal death. The true artist, to make art, requires the same balance as the true philosopher — each must balance their work with that which their work reflects — else all art and all thought become “shadows of the world.” Still death, the epitome of the natural attitude, as we can never fully reflect upon it, might have more art — a living art — than the act of art itself. In dying she lives the tragedy, and in death she becomes the art.

† Read the poem at Poetry Foundation.

Abrams, M. H. The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition. New York: Norton, 1958.

Chesterton, G. K. Saint Thomas Aquinas: “The Dumb Ox.” 1933. New York, Doubleday, 2001.

Kreeft, Peter. Socratic Logic. South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2004.

MacDonald, George. Phantastes: A Faerie Romance. 1858. Whitethorn: Johannesen, 2000.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. 1945. Trans. Colin Smith. London: Routledge, 2005.

Sokolowski, Robert. Introduction to Phenomenology. Cambridge: Cambridge, 2000.