Richard III (Folger Shakespeare Library)

New Price: $5.99
Used Price: $0.99

Mentioned in:

The Greeks Aren’t Done with Us: Simon Critchley on Tragedy

We know that ghosts cannot speak until they have drunk blood; and the spirits which we evoke demand the blood of our hearts.—Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Greek Historical Writing, and Apollo (1908)

Thirteen years ago, when I lived briefly in Glasgow, I made it a habit to regularly attend the theater. An unheralded cultural mecca in its own right, overshadowed by charming, medieval Edinburgh to the east, the post-industrial Scottish capitalI was never lacking in good drama. Also, they let you drink beer during performances. Chief among those plays was a production of Sophocles’s Antigone, the final part of his tragic Theban Cycle, and one of the most theorized and staged of dramas from that Athenian golden age four centuries before the Common Era, now presented in the repurposed 16th-century Tron Church. Director David Levin took the Attic Greek of Sophocles and translated it into the guttural brogue of Lowlands Scotts, and in a strategy now deployed almost universally for any production of a play older than a century, the chitons of the ancient world were replaced with business suits, and the decrees of Creon were presented on television screen, as the action was reimagined not in 441 BCE but in 2007.

Enough to remind me of that headline from The Onion which snarked: “Unconventional Director Sets Shakespeare Play in Time, Place that Shakespeare Intended.” The satirical newspaper implicitly mocks adaptations like Richard Loncraine’s Richard III which imagined the titular character (devilishly performed by Ian McKellen) as a sort of Oswald Mosley-like fascist, and Derek Jarman’s masterful version of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II, which makes a play about the Plantagenet line of succession into a parable about gay rights and the Act Up movement. By contrast, The Onion quips that its imagined “unconventional” staging of The Merchant of Venice is one in which “Swords will replace guns, ducats will be used instead of the American dollar or Japanese yen, and costumes, such as…[the] customary pinstripe suit, general’s uniform, or nudity, will be replaced by garb of the kind worn” in the Renaissance. The dramaturgical perspective behind Levin’s Antigone was definitely what the article parodied; there was nary a contorted dramatic mask to be found, no Greek chorus chanting in dithyrambs, and, as I recall, lots of video projection. The Onion aside, British philosopher Simon Critchley would see no problem with Levin’s artistic decisions, writing in his new book Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us that “each generation has an obligation to reinvent the classics. The ancients need our blood to revise and live among us. By definition, such an act of donation constructs the ancients in our image.”

Antigone, coming from as foreign a culture as it does, still holds our attention for some reason. The story of the titular character—punished by her uncle Creon for daring to defy his command that her brother Polynices’s corpse be left to fester as carrion for the buzzards and worms in the field where he died because he has raised arms against Thebes—would seem to have little to do with Tony Blair’s United Kingdom. When a Glaswegian audience hears Sophocles’s words, however, that “I have nothing but contempt for the kind of governor who is afraid, for whatever reason, to follow the course the he knows is best for the State; and as for the man who sets private friendship above the public welfare—I have no use for him either” a bit more resonance may be heard. Critchley argues that at the core of Greek tragedy is a sublime ambivalence, an engagement with contradiction that classical philosophy can’t abide;as distant as Antigone’s origins may be, its exploration of the conflict between the individual and the state, terrorism and liberation, surveillance and freedom seemed very of the millennium’s first decade. Creon’s countenance of the unthinkable punishment of his niece, to be bricked up behind a wall, was delivered in front of a camera as if George W. Bush announcing the bombing of Iraq from the Oval Office on primetime television. “Evil sometimes seems good / To a man whose mind / A god leads to destruction,” Sophocles wrote. This was a staging for the era of the Iraq War and FOX News, of the Patriot Act and NSA surveillance, and of the coming financial collapse. Less than a year later, and I’d be back in my apartment stateside watching Barack Obama deliver his Grant Park acceptance speech. It was enough to make one think of Antigone’s line: “Our ship of fate, which recent storms have threatened to destroy, has come to harbor at last.” I’m a bad student of the Greeks; I should have known better than to embrace that narcotic hope that pretends tragedy is not the omnipresent condition of humanity.

What could Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus possibly have to say in our current, troubled moment? Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us is Critchley’s attempt to grapple with those disquieting 32 extant plays that whisper to us from an often-fantasized collective past. What survives of Greek tragedy is four less plays than all of those written by Shakespeare; an entire genre of performance for which we have titles referenced by philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, with only those three playwrights’ words enduring, and where often the most we can hope for are a few fragments preserved on some surviving papyri. Critchley emphasizes how little we know about plays like Antigone, or Aeschylus’s Oresteia, or Euripides’s Medea; that classicists often hypothesized that they were born from the Dionysian rituals, or that they focused on satyr psalms, the “song of the goats,” giving tragedy the whiff of the demonic, of the demon Azazel to whom sacrifices of the scapegoat must be made in the Levantine desert.

Beyond even tragedy’s origin, which ancient Greek writers themselves disagreed about, we’re unsure exactly how productions were staged or who attended. What we do have are those surviving 32 plays themselves and the horrific narratives they recount—Oedipus blinded in grief over the patricide and incest that he unknowingly committed but prophetically ensured because of his hubris; Medea slaughtering her children as a revenge on the unfaithfulness of her husband; Pentheus ripped apart by her frenzied Maenads in ecstatic thrall to Dionysius because the Theban ruler couldn’t countenance the power of irrationality. “There are at least thirteen nouns in Attic Greek for words describing grief, lamentation, and mourning,” Critchley writes about the ancients; our “lack of vocabulary when it comes to the phenomenon of death speaks volumes about who we are.” Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us is Critchley’s attempt to give us a bit of their vocabulary of excessive lamentation so as to better approach our predicament.

Readers shouldn’t mistake Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us as a conservative defense of the canon; this is no paean to the superior understanding of the ancients, nor is its highfalutin’ self-help. Critchley’s book isn’t Better Living Through Euripides. Easy to misread the (admittedly not great) title as an advertisement for a book selling the snake-oil of traditionalist cultural literacy, that exercise in habitus that confuses familiarity with the “Great Books” as a type of wisdom. Rather, Critchley explores the Greek tragedies in all of their strange glory, as an exercise in aesthetic rupture, where the works of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides configure a different type of space that renders a potent critique against oppressive logic. His task is thus the “very opposite of any and all kinds of cultural conservatism.” Critchley sees the plays not as museum pieces, or as simple means of demonstrating that you went to a college with diplomas written in Latin, but rather as a “subversive traditionalism” that helps us to critique “ever more egregious forms of cultural stupefaction that arise from being blinded by the myopia of the present.” This is all much larger than either celebrating or denouncing the syllabi of St. John’s College; Critchley has no concern for boring questions about “Western Civilization” or “Defending the Canon,” rather he rightly sees the tragedies as an occasion to deconstruct those idols of our current age—of the market, of society, of law, of religion, of state. He convincingly argues that any honest radical can’t afford to ignore the past, and something primal and chthonic calls to us from those 32 extant plays, for “We might think we are through with the past, but the past isn’t through with us.”

Critchley explains that the contemporary world, perhaps even more so than when I watched Antigone in Glasgow, is a “confusing, noisy place, defined by endless war, rage, grief, ever-growing inequality. We undergo a gnawing moral and political uncertainty in a world of ambiguity.” Our moment, the philosopher claims, is a “tragicomedy defined by war, corruption, vanity, and greed,” for if my Antigone was of its moment, then Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us could only have been written after 2016. That year, and the characters it ushered into our national consciousness, can seem a particular type of American tragedy, but Critchley’s view (even while haunted by a certain hubristic figure with a predilection for the misspelled tweet) is more expansive than that. In his capable analysis, Critchley argues that tragedy exists as a mode of representing this chaos; a type of thinking at home with inconsistency, ambiguity, contradiction, and complexity. It’s those qualities that have made the form suspicious to philosophers.

Plato considered literature in several of his dialogues, concluding in Gorgias that the “effect of speech upon the structure of the soul / Is as the structure of drugs over the nature of bodies” (he wasn’t wrong), and famously having his puppet Socrates argue in The Republic that the just city-state would ban poets and poetry from their affairs for the aforementioned reason. Plato’s disgruntled student Aristotle was more generous to tragedy, content rather to categorize and explain its effects in Poetics, explaining that performance is the “imitation of an action that is serious, and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself…with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.” Aristotle’s view has historically been interpreted as a defense of literature in opposition to Plato, whereby that which the later found so dangerous—the passions and emotions roiled by drama—were now justified as a sort of emotional pressure gauge that helped audiences purge their otherwise potentially destructive emotions. By the 19th century a philosopher like Friedrich Nietzsche would anticipate Critchley (though the latter might chaff at that claim) when he exonerated tragedy as more than mere moral instruction, coming closer to Plato’s claim about literature’s dangers while ecstatically embracing that reality. According to Nietzsche, tragedy existed in the tension between “Apollonian” and “Dionysian” poles; the first implies rationality, order, beauty, logic, and truth; the second signifies the realm of chaos, irrationality, ecstasy, and intoxication. Nietzsche writes in The Birth of Tragedy that the form “sits in sublime rapture amidst this abundance of life, suffering and delight, listening to a far-off, melancholy song…whose names are Delusion, Will, Woe.” For the German philologist that’s a recommendation, to “join me in my faith in this Dionysiac life and the rebirth of tragedy.”

As a thinker, Critchley Agonistes is well equipped in joining these predecessors in systematizing what he argues is the unsystematizable. Faculty at the New School for Social Research,and coeditor for The New York Times philosophy column “The Stone” (to which I have contributed), Critchley has proven himself an apt scholar who engages the wider conversation. Not a popularizer per se, for Critchley’s goal isn’t the composition of listicles enumerating whacky facts about Hegel, but a philosopher in the truest sense of being one who goes into the Agora and grapples with the circumstances of meaning as they manifest in the punk rock venue, at the soccer stadium, and in the movie theater. Unlike most of his countrymen who recline in the discipline, Critchley is a British scholar who embraces what’s called “continental philosophy,” rejecting the arid, logical formulations of analytical thought in favor of the Parisian profundities of thinkers like Jacques Derrida, Emanuel Levinas, and Martin Heidegger. Critchley has written tomes with titles like The Ethics of Deconstruction: Derrida and Levinas and Ethics-Politics-Subjectivity: Essays on Derrida, Levinas, & Contemporary French Thought, but he’s also examined soccer in What We Think About When We Think About Football (he’s a Liverpool fan) and in Bowie he analyzed, well, Bowie. Add to that his provocative take on religion in Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology and on death in The Book of Dead Philosophers (which consists of short entries enumerating the sometimes bizarre ways in which philosophers died, from jumping into a volcano to love potion poisoning) and Critchley has announced himself as one of the most psychedelically mind-expanding of people to earn their lucre by explaining Schopenhauer and Wittgenstein to undergraduates.  

What makes Critchley such an engaging thinker about the subjects he examines is both his grounding in continental philosophy (which asks questions about being, love, death, and eternity, as opposed to its analytical cousin content to enumerate all the definitions of the word “is”) and his unpretentious roots in working class Hertfordshire, studying at the glass-and-concrete University of Essex as opposed to tony Oxbridge. Thus, when Critchley writes that “there is an ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry,” it seems pretty clear that he’s a secret agent working for the latter against the former. He rejects syllogism for stanza and embraces poetics in all of its multitudinous and glorious contradictions. The central argument of Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us is that the form “invites its audience to look at such disjunctions between two or more claims to truth, justice, or whatever without immediately seeking a unifying ground or reconciling the phenomena into a higher unity.” What makes Antigone so devastating is that the title character’s familial obligation justifies the burial of her brother, but the interests of the state validates Creon’s prohibition of that same burial. The tragedy arises in the irreconcilable conflict of two right things, with Critchley explaining that Greek drama “presents a conflictually constituted world defined by ambiguity, duplicity, uncertainty, and unknowability, a world that cannot be rendered rationally fully intelligible through some metaphysical first principles or set of principles, axioms, tables of categories, or whatever.”

This is the central argument: that the “experience of tragedy poses a most serious objection to that invention we call philosophy.” More accurately, Critchley argues that tragedy’s comfort with discomfort, its consistent embrace of inconsistency, its ordered representation of disorder, positions the genre as a type of radical critique of philosophy, a genre that expresses the anarchic rhetoric of the sophists, rather than their killjoy critic Socrates and his dour student Plato. As a refresher, the sophists were the itinerant and sometimes fantastically successful rhetoricians who taught Greek politicians a type of disorganized philosophy that, according to Socrates, had no concern with the truth, but only with what was convincing. Socrates supposedly placed “Truth” at the core of his dialectical method, and, ever since, the discipline has taken up the mantle of “a psychic and political existence at one with itself, which can be linked to ideas of self-mastery, self-legislation, autonomy, and autarchy, and which inform the modern jargon of authenticity.” Tragedy is defined by none of those things; where philosophy strives for order and harmony, tragedy dwells in chaos and division; where syllogism strives to eliminate all contradiction as irrational, poetry understands that it’s in the complexity of inconsistency, confusion, and even hypocrisy that we all dwell. Sophistry and tragedy, to the recommendation of both, are intimately connected; both being methods commensurate with the dark realities of what it means to be alive. Critchley claims that “tragedy articulates a philosophical view that challenges the authority of philosophy by giving voice to what is contradictory about us, what is constricted about us, what is precarious about us, and what is limited about us.”

Philosophy is all arid formulations, dry syllogisms, contrived Gedankenexperiments; tragedy is the knowledge that nothing of the enormity of what it means to be alive can be circumscribed by mere seminar argument. “Tragedy slows things down by confronting us with what we do not know about ourselves,” Critchley writes. If metaphysics is contained by the formulations of the classroom, then the bloody stage provides a more accurate intimation of death and life. By being in opposition to philosophy, tragedy is against systems. It becomes both opposite and antidote to the narcotic fantasy that everything will be alright. Perhaps coming to terms with his own discipline, Critchley argues that “it is necessary to try and think theatrically and not just philosophically.” Tragedy, he argues, provides an opportunity to transcend myths of progress and comforts of order, to rather ecstatically enter a different space, an often dark, brutal, and subterranean place, but one which demonstrates the artifice of our self-regard.

A word conspicuous in its absence from Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us is that of the “sacred.” If there is any critical drawback to Critchley’s argument, it seems to be in the hesitancy, or the outright denial, that what he claims in his book has anything to do with something quite so wooly as the noumenal. Critchley gives ample space to argue that, “Tragedy is not some Dionysian celebration of the power of ritual and the triumph of myth over reason,” yet a full grappling with his argument seems to imply the opposite. The argument that tragedy stages contradiction is one that is convincing, but those sublime contradictions are very much under the Empire of Irrationality’s jurisdiction. Critchley is critical of those that look at ancient tragedy and “imagine that the spectators…were in some sort of prerational, ritualistic stupor, some intoxicated, drunken dumbfounded state,” but I suppose much of our interpretation depends on how we understand ritual, religion, stupor, and intoxication.

His claims are invested in an understanding of the Greeks as not being fundamentally that different from us, writing that “there is a lamentable tendency to exoticize Attic tragedy,” but maybe what’s actually called for is a defamiliarization of our own culture, an embrace of the irrational weirdness at the core of what it means to be alive 2019, where everything that is solid melts into air (to paraphrase Marx). Aeschylus knew the score well; “Hades, ruler of the nether sphere, / Exactest auditor of human kind, / Graved on the tablet of his mind,” as he describes the prince of this world in Eumenides. Critchley, I’d venture, is of Dionysius’s party but doesn’t know it. All that is argued in Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us points towards an awareness, however sublimated, of the dark beating heart within the undead cadaver’s chest. “To resist Dionysius is to repress the elemental in one’s own nature,” writes the classicist E.R. Dodds in his seminal The Greeks and the Irrational, “the punishment is the sudden complete collapse of the inward dykes when the elemental breaks through…and civilization vanishes.”

Absolutely correct that tragedy is in opposition to philosophy; where the latter offers assurances that reason can see us through, the former knows that it’s never that simple. The abyss is patient and deep, and no amount of analysis, of interpretation, of calculation, of polling can totally account for the hateful tragic pulse of our fellow humans. Nietzsche writes “what changes come upon the weary desert of our culture, so darkly described, when it is touched by…Dionysius! A storm seizes everything decrepit, rotten, broken, stunted; shrouds it in a whirling red cloud of dusty and carries it into the air like a vulture.” If any place best exemplifies that experience, and this moment, it’s Euripides’s The Bacchae, to which Critchley devotes precious little attention. That play depicts the arrival of that ambiguous god Dionysius to Thebes, as his followers thrill to the divine and irrational ecstasies that he promises. It ends with a crowd of those followers, the Maenads, mistaking the ruler Pentheus for a sacrificial goat and pulling him apart, his bones from their sockets, his organs from their cavities. Until his murder, Pentheus simultaneously manifested a repressed thrill towards the Dionysian fervor and a deficiency in taking the threat of such uncontained emotion seriously. “Cleverness is not wisdom,” Euripides writes, “And not to think mortal thoughts is to see few days.” If any didactic import comes from The Bacchae, it’s to give the devil as an adversary his due, for irrationality has more power than the clever among us might think.

Circling around the claims of Critchley’s book is our current political situation, alluded to but never engaged outright. In one sense, that’s for the best; those demons’ names are uttered endlessly all day anyhow. It’s desirable to at least have one place where you need not read about them. But in another manner, fully intuiting the Dionysian import of tragedy becomes all the more crucial when we think about what that dark god portends in our season of rising authoritarianism. “Tragedy is democracy turning itself into a spectacle,” and anyone with Twitter will concur with that observation of Critchley’s. Even more important is Critchley’s argument about those mystic chords of memory connecting us to a past that we continually reinvent; the brilliance of his claim about why the Greeks matter to us now, removing the stuffiness of anything as prosaic as canonicity, is that tragedy encapsulates the way in which bloody trauma can vibrate through the millennia and control us as surely as the ancients believed fate controlled humans. Critchley writes that “Tragedy is full of ghosts, ancient and modern, and the line separating the living from the dead is continually blurred. This means that in tragedy the dead don’t stay dead and the living are not fully alive.” We can’t ignore the Greeks, because the Greeks aren’t done with us. If there is anything that hampers us as we attempt to extricate the Dionysian revelers in our midst, it’s that many don’t acknowledge the base, chthonic power of such irrationality, and they refuse to see how violence, hate, and blood define our history in the most horrific of ways. To believe that progress, justice, and rationality are guaranteed, that they don’t require a fight commensurate with their worthiness, is to let a hubris fester in our souls and to court further tragedy among our citizens.

What Medea or The Persians do is allow us to safely access the Luciferian powers of irrationality. They present a more accurate portrayal of humanity, based as we are in bloodiness and barbarism, than the palliatives offered by Plato in The Republic with his philosopher kings. Within that space of the theater, Critchley claims that at its best it “somehow allows us to become ecstatically stretched out into another time and space, another way of experiencing things and the world.” Far from the anemic moralizing of Aristotelian catharsis—and Critchley emphasizes just how ambiguous that word actually is—that is too often interpreted as referring to a regurgitative didacticism, tragedy actually makes a new world by demolishing and replacing our world, if only briefly. “If one allows oneself to be completely involved in what is happening onstage,” Critchley writes, “one enters a unique space that provides an unparalleled experience of sensory and cognitive intensity that is impossible to express purely in concepts.” I recall seeing a production of Shakespeare’s Othello at London’s National Theatre in 2013, directed by Nicholas Hytner and starring Adrian Lester as the cursed Moor and Rory Kinear as a reptilian Iago. Dr. Johnson wrote that Othello’s murder of Desdemona was the single most horrifying scene in drama, and I concur; the play remains the equal of anything by Aeschylus or Euripides in its tragic import.

When I watched Lester play the role, lingering over the dying body of his faithful wife, whispering “What noise is this? Not dead—not yet quite dead?” I thought of many things. I thought about how Shakespeare’s play reflects the hideous things that men do to women, and the hideous things that the majority do to the marginalized. I thought about how jealousy noxiously fills every corner, no matter how small, like some sort of poison gas. And I thought about how unchecked malignancy can shatter our souls. But mostly what I thought wasn’t in any words, but was better expressed by Lester’s anguished cry as he confronted the evil he’d done. If tragedy allows for an audience to occasionally leave our normal space and time, then certainly I felt like I was joined with those thousand other spectators on that summer night at South Bank’s Olivier Theatre. The audience’s silence after Othello’s keening subsided was as still as the space between atoms, as empty as the gap between people.

The Artist and the Fly

Put yourself in her shoes. She is a performer. She is slim and poised and recondite insofar as her comportment seems to withdraw her from the rest of us, who are mortal and dim in contrast. I am fixated on a shred of almond skin wedged between my teeth. I am worried about a flap of cuticle come loose from my nailbed. I am in the audience at the New York Public Library for a celebration of the director Robert Wilson’s 70th birthday. The performer is joined by other luminaries — Rufus Wainwright and Lou Reed. Each has something hagiographic to say about Wilson. Lou Reed previews his collaboration with Metallica, citing Wilson as its impetus. Wainwright is forced to sing a cappella when the audio system craps out, proving that his voice really is that good. The performer recites a passage from Wilson’s collaborative opera with Philip Glass, Einstein on the Beach. She has the text in front of her, but she does not need it; she’s had this part memorized for years. Her recital is lovely, and the lilt and cadence of her voice are mesmerizing. But then halfway through, something happens that gets me thinking about artistry and solipsism and the fallout of one marrying up with the other.

What happens is: A giant fly begins to circle the performer’s face. She is wearing a bone microphone, which amplifies the buzz as this fly alights on her forehead. Her nose. Her eye and even on the microphone head, itself. The buzzing is so loud, it feels like this fly is in my own ear canal. So. Put yourself in her shoes and what would you do? Swat the fly. Ten out of ten of you swats the fly. Gets up. Stops reciting. What none of you do is carry on as if unaware of the fly. As if possessed of such composure, you are the most unflappable person on earth. The very essence of the show must go on. Lucinda Childs finished reciting without having acknowledged the fly in any way. The library might have caught on fire — hell, the entire city might have caught on fire — but Childs would carry on. Unperturbed. Impregnable.

I have thought about this moment in the library with pathological intensity since then. I have told the story of the Artist and the Fly many times, but always with the same awe. Awe and anxiety because the degree of professionalism on display in Childs’s refusal to admit the fly into her dispatch of Einstein on the Beach seemed to encroach on a category of behavior that doesn’t, for instance, concede the fly exists at all.

Now, I am not claiming that Childs is, herself, a solipsist (if you watch the video, you can see her flinch ever so slightly) but that she performed a brand of solipsism that is anathema to what art does so well, which is to engage, however obliquely, with the fraught stuff of our lives. Art that does not do this — art that cannot see past itself — is gospel. Propaganda. It is removed and distant and wholly ineffective when it comes to providing us with a chance to take shelter in each other’s humanity.

I left the library feeling uncomfortable. And a little depressed. After all, Childs was just doing her job. Childs was just doing what most of us artists are taught to do, which is to preserve what John Gardner has famously called the “fictional dream” — the sustained and vivid universe of a novel or story that is successful only if it resists puncture. The “fictional dream” does not acknowledge itself; it does not acknowledge us. Ninety percent of fiction operates with the “fictional dream” in mind. My fiction operates with the “fictional dream” in mind. So what, exactly, is the problem?

Well, okay, perhaps I can best answer this by thinking through our romance with bloopers. Turns out I have a friend who watches blooper reels with some frequency. On YouTube, where a search for “bloopers” turns up 11,900,000 results while a search for “cats” — and who doesn’t love a cat video? — turns up a mere 11,400,000 results. Bloopers appeal to people because they are genuine. And more importantly, they are genuine precisely because they break form. They expose artistry as a sham and, in so doing, relieve the anxiety of distance that attends all our experiences of art. My friend watches bloopers when he doesn’t know what to do with himself. He says they orient him. That they remind him people are real and he is real, which is by way of tethering us to each other.

Naturally, then, many artists have decided that one solution to the problem of art and artifice is to recreate the effect of a blooper. Hence the long tradition in the arts of breaking the fourth wall on purpose. Shakespeare did it with aplomb. I’m thinking of Henry V (and of course a Midsummer Night’s Dream) where Henry and Puck, respectively, apologize for the plays’ shortcomings or at least beg for our indulgence. I’m thinking of Tristram Shandy and Don Quixote, which are overtly aware of themselves as art. I’m thinking of the Muppets, whose “Pigs in Space” skit always had the astro-swine shocked whenever the skit’s theme music played (which trope was picked up and amplified by the lyrics of the theme song for “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show”: “This is the theme to Garry’s show, the opening theme to Garry’s show, this is the music that you hear as you watch the credits.”) I’m thinking of the many many novels that toy with themselves as novels, which is all by way of foregrounding how deficient art must be when it comes to representation.

More recently, I am reminded of House of Cards, which I watched obsessively over three days a couple months ago. Do the math, that is four+ shows a night. Kevin Spacey, whom I last saw play Richard III at BAM, plays Francis Underwood, who is Richard’s equal for monomania and malice. And just like Richard, Underwood frequently breaks the action to soliloquize the audience. He tells us what he’s thinking. He tells us who everyone is. He makes us accomplice to his plans just for being privy to them. To start his first address to the audience in episode one, he looks at the camera and says, “Oh!” as if startled to find us there watching him or perhaps startled to have forgotten we were there. The gambit is designed to immerse us more completely in his universe, though it actually has the opposite effect of reminding me that his universe is not real.

You’d think, given my reservations about the fictional dream, that I’d find comfort in these metafictions. That I’d feel closer to these works for being acknowledged by them. But I don’t. On the contrary, I generally find them ridiculous. Whenever Francis soliloquizes the screen, it seems ridiculous! When Shakespeare enacts what the academics call “medium awareness,” it feels too clever by half. And if I read one more novel that pokes fun at its being a novel, I might cry. Look at me, I am art! I am foregrounding problems of representation! Work like this often feels more egocentric and solipsistic than art that just leaves it alone.

My friend who watches bloopers thinks the problem here is about responsibility and distance. The fictional dream allows us to abdicate responsibility: we can turn ourselves over to a knowing authority and check our incredulities at the door. But the dream, for being a dream, can also distance us from the very thing the dream depicts, no matter how seamlessly it is done. Alternately, the bloopers reel and self-reflexive fiction feel intimate though perhaps onerous for burdening us with evidence that our lives are real, and that real life is hard.

And so, a problem that can be recast as a debate about the efficacy of art. One the one hand: art has an asymptotic relationship with “truth,” with the world, so that to be an artist necessarily means to be a failure. Always and only a failure. On the other hand is an idea advanced by Tim O’Brien, who is endlessly quoted in this context — “Fiction is the lie that helps us understand the truth” — and hailed for his notion that “story truth” is a highly manipulated version of the real deal that equals and often exceeds the real deal’s power of effect.<

O’Brien neuters the problem of artifice and remove by recasting them as assets in the project of isolating and dramatizing what is powerful in our experience of life. Who needs to see someone swat madly at a fly when you can better experience its pathos (e.g., an elegant woman accosted by the humdrum) in a play or novel that will do it better? Such, at least, is what Tim O’Brien might say.

And what I say, too, thanks to the following experience I had at the Metropolitan Opera, where I saw Don Carlo a few months ago. In the first act, Don Carlo and his betrothed sing of their love. They are in a forest and Don Carlo, being the gentleman that he is, makes a fire. A real fire, on a flammable stage at the Met. Ten minutes later, a man in jeans and T-shirt marched onstage with a fire extinguisher. He didn’t look at the audience, he even seemed bored, but in front of a full house, while the singers were performing, he blasted the fire and walked off. At first, I thought he was part of the production. Don Carlo finds out his fiancée is actually intended for his father (ah, opera), at which point some guy destroys the emblem of their love. It seemed apt. Quickly, though, I realized this was not part of the plan. The audience started to laugh. I was sitting three rows from the pit, so I could see the conductor (full disclosure, the conductor was Lorin Maazel, who is my father) carry on as if nothing had happened. Meantime, the stagehand, whose intentions were good, did not actually manage to put out the fire. Instead, he left it smoldering, so that the stage began to fill with smoke. How can you sing when your lungs are filled with smoke? But the performers sang on, though the soprano had to turn her back to the audience (possibly to stifle a laugh) while the tenor seemed less than committed to the moment. They did not swat the fly but they did acknowledge the world’s intrusion on their art.

The upshot? I felt badly for the singers. I felt badly for my dad. And I felt somewhat self-conscious about being at the opera, whose pretensions and artifice were made uppermost thanks to the stagehand. But mostly, for that moment, I felt cheated of the magic that is Don Carlo. A three-hour disquisition in song on the big, human feelings: love, grief, rage, despair. Which is when I began to feel good about art that refuses to concede I am alive.

From Einstein on the Beach: “These are the days my friends and these are my days my friends.” So long as art continues to record those days, why should it have to acknowledge my days in particular? I don’t need to be noticed in the moment, just in the main. I am, after all, but a fly. One among many. So, yeah, don’t mind me. Carry on.

Image via Ali Arsh/Flickr

Conspiring Minds

1.
After Hugo Chávez’s death, it certainly didn’t take long for conspiracy theories to surface, or indeed resurface, about a United States plot to poison him. Then came Rand Paul’s epic filibuster, which fired up liberals, libertarians, and conspiracy theorists alike. The South American intrigue and vision of armed drones patrolling American skies almost managed to overshadow the upheaval at the Vatican, always good for a dose of real or imagined intrigue: Shocking Resignation! Papist plots! Female Popes! Borgias! Traitorous butlers! The past month has been particularly rich in conspiracy theories, though as Richard Hofstadter notes in his famous essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” the conspiratorial worldview, “while it comes in waves of different intensity…appears to be ineradicable.”

Explaining humanity’s endemic paranoia, Hofstadter concedes that broadly speaking, conspiratorial thinkers have it right: “All political behavior requires strategy, many strategic acts depend for their effect upon a period of secrecy, and anything that is secret may be described, often with but little exaggeration, as conspiratorial.” The paranoid mind, however, sees conspiracy as “the motive force in historical events” and imagines a vast, shadowy network of unlimited power working around the clock to sabotage, infiltrate, obfuscate and corrupt. This worldview spawns a style that is “nothing if not coherent,” blends a “seemingly coherent application to detail” and “the most fantastic conclusions,” is flexible enough to adopt the voice of a Dryasdust pedant or a lurid visionary, and finally projects its author’s desires and limitations onto a beguiling villain, a “free, active, demonic agent.” Hofstadter’s paranoid, it turns out, possesses many of the elements of a good novelist (save, crucially, irony).

Several years ago — when some of the finest paranoid minds were at work on Barack Obama’s birth certificate — I used this connection between the paranoid and the novelist to design a composition class on conspiracy fiction. I figured the flashy topic would be a good way to smuggle in a short history of Western literature from the Book of Revelations to The Crying of Lot 49. The nineteen enrolled students, many of whom were reasonably expecting to be enlightened about Opus Dei or the suspiciously decorated Denver International Airport, found themselves snared in an elaborate plan designed to make them read Richard III. I still remember their gasps when they realized that the deception went all the way to the top (or rather, all the way to their graduate instructor). By the time the add/drop deadline had passed, we were proceeding line by line through Lucky’s monologue in Waiting for Godot, that two-act conspiratorial joke played on a hapless couple, and there was, to quote Beckett, “nothing to be done.” Unless I could somehow be stopped, my dastardly, 12-week plan would soon culminate in a research paper on a topic of their choice.

In one of the odd ways that syllabi mirror life, one day after class I found myself in a strange discussion with a student’s father. He worked in the defense industry and was concerned that his son’s enrollment in a conspiracy fiction class might raise red flags. I assured him that while I was guilty of numerous pedagogical crimes, I had no intention of subverting the government. The course, I explained, was about the importance of “plot” in both fiction and conspiracy theories. We were less concerned with loosening the tentacles of our military industrial complex than in teasing out the literary implications of Hofstadter’s essay on the paranoid style, which argues that the distinguishing feature of a conspiracy theory is not “the absence of verifiable facts,” but rather the “curious leap in imagination…from the undeniable to the unbelievable.” Conspiracy fiction, and here I smugly quoted from my course description, reverses this process, imaginatively leaping from the unbelievable to the undeniable.

Couldn’t he see, I breathlessly continued, that the paranoid’s ability to weave each new piece of information into a growing web of deceit mirrored the novelist’s seamless construction of a fictional world? That the paranoid’s perverse faith in the unremitting power of his antagonist was similar to the reader’s faith in the novelist’s diabolical control over every character, detail, scene and plot twist? (Did I mention that a tendency to longwindedness was one of my aforementioned teaching faults?) For my peroration, I urged him to grant that conspiracy fiction modeled an intensified version of the same “blessed rage for order” that motivates all of our reading, from modern poetry to a lease agreement.

In short, I told him that my course was in no way jeopardizing his security clearance.

2.
Looking back on that little chat with the military contractor, I believe that episode, and its attendant eeriness, gave me the fanciful notion that my students were in fact conspiring against me. It speaks either to my classroom management skills or to my paranoid disposition that I began to see every note passed, whispered comment, or mute response to my questions as a sinister sign of collusion. Moreover, when they did speak, they seemed intent on asking questions for which I had no answer. I felt like The Third Man’s Holly Martins, the author of Breakfast at Double Egg Ranch who must give an impromptu lecture on the crisis of faith in the modern novel.

The often naïve heroes of conspiracy fiction must quickly learn to read the signs of an increasingly sinister world, and read I did. The students’ papers were a source of constant paranoid speculation. I became convinced that after having encountered Poe’s “The Purloined Letter,” a meerschaum-infused tale of royal blackmail, they were employing increasingly cunning ways to conceal their thesis statements — those necessary MacGuffins around which all English papers turn — from my “lynx eye.” Were they perhaps hiding in plain sight like the missing letter, “thrust carelessly and…contemptuously” somewhere in those 2.5-spaced paragraphs?

No sooner had I given up the search then we moved on to Conan Doyle’s “The Red-Headed League,” that marvelous tale in which a conspiracy is set in motion in the most public of ways: a newspaper announcement putting out a call to “all red-headed men who are sound in body and mind.” Suspecting that the students had drawn inspiration from the redheaded man’s mysterious sinecure — copying out the Encyclopedia Britannica for 4 pounds a week — I soon began seeing plagiarists everywhere scheming to dupe their hardly Sherlockian instructor. When we got to Borges’s “Death and the Compass,” I convinced myself that the students were merely crafting their papers to read like plagiaries, thereby mimicking the villainous trick played on Lönnrot, a detective who is lured into a trap through his “reckless perspicacity.”

A switch from literature to Machiavelli’s political science gave me a strategy for heading off the class’s conspiratorial fever.
…in taking hold of a state, he who seizes it should examine all the offenses necessary for him to commit, and do them all at a stroke, so as not to have to renew them every day and, by not renewing them, to secure men and gain them to himself with benefits.
Acting more the lion than the fox, I didn’t even tuck my shirt into my khakis before bursting into the classroom the following day. I doled out pop quizzes, checked their books for marginalia, confiscated their phones and forced them to spend the remaining twenty minutes reflecting on Joseph K.’s unenviable, impossible task in The Trial:
…to meet an unknown accusation, not to mention other possible charges arising out of it, the whole of one’s life would have to be recalled to mind, down to the smallest actions and accidents, clearly formulated and examined from every angle.
It didn’t work. When we reached Pynchon, I predictably began to find curious graffiti around campus. I had taught the students too well in the art of conspiracy making, and by the end of the semester I was as besieged as Oedipa Maas with the “malignant, deliberate replication” of muted horns: “They knew her pressure points, and the ganglia of her optimism, and one by one, pinch by precision pinch, they were immobilizing her.”

Of my end-of-term evaluations, it suffices to quote the first line of The Trial: “Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K.”

3.
As the recap of my semester demonstrates, the conspiratorial thinker is also a pitiable figure, which Hofstadter points out in the oddly moving conclusion to his essay: “We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.” That is, the paranoid believes in his fiction (which never ends well), and thus he fails to derive pleasure from the meticulously constructed plots in the way that the reader of conspiracy fiction can. (If only a work like Albert Cossery’s A Splendid Conspiracy, which brilliantly and amusingly depicts the melancholic aspect of a police chief who has “nothing but the mirage of a conspiracy to fill his loneliness,” had been on my syllabus, I might have seen the error of my ways earlier.)

And yet my paranoid pedagogy was ultimately more comitragic than tragic, more Beckettian than Shakespearian. I came into the class like the emotionally, psychologically, and morally stunted characters we would encounter and came out in considerably better shape than most of them. I should focus on the upside of conspiracy fiction, the way it offers perverse, often painful opportunities for entertainment, growth, introspection, and enlightenment: to improvise or “canter” like Vladimir and Estragon wiling away the time, to lose one’s childish illusions like The Ministry of Fear’s Arthur Rowe, to ponder one’s guilt, if only futilely, like Joseph K., or like Oedipa Maas, to discover fleetingly the “high magic to low puns.” Such is the allure of conspiratorial narrative; it invites a clarity, however illusory, amidst the very real and supremely readable distortions of the paranoid style.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Proving a Villain: The Search for Richard III

1.
The modern world swooned last month when the bones found under a parking lot in Leicester, England were confirmed to be indeed those of Richard III. Part of the fuss was due to the wonderfully incongruous image of a 15th century king entombed under this age’s most banal and omnipresent architectural fixture — “What’s under my parking lot?” we mused breathlessly. And, to be sure, Anglophilia is ascendant in these tremulous days of “Downton” and Hilary Mantel’s fittingly titled historical novel Bring Up the Bodies. But the real business with the skeleton of course had to do with Richard’s status as a hated historical king, the deformed, dissembling, and nephew-smothering arch-bad guy whose downfall mercifully concluded the grisly War of the Roses.

It’s more or less agreed among people who take the time to review these things that Richard was the target of a posthumous smear campaign orchestrated by the triumphant Tudor dynasty (whose founder Henry VII defeated Richard in 1485). Official Tudor chroniclers during the mid-16th century purposefully blackened Richard’s character, and Shakespeare followed suit by putting a hunchbacked tyrant on stage in the electrically charged history, The Tragedy of King Richard The Third. Rightly or wrongly, Richard went down in history as a regal punching bag, a ruler who embodied the worst of late-medieval chicanery.

But now, with even the American media reporting at fever pitch on the miraculous discovery, the contested reburial plans, and digital facial renderings (evidently, Richard III resembled Shrek’s Lord Farquaad), it appears that England’s most reviled king may just get a reappraisal. Richard’s apologists hope that his newfound celebrity will encourage us all to submit our old Shakespearean prejudices to a round of honest fact-checking. It’s a simple procedure, in which historical evidence is marshaled to root out the mythology inherent in literary representation, to the point where the literary work in question can be dismissed as little more than myth itself.

The technique has its fair uses — we might be grateful for it when dealing with, say, Kipling’s odes to imperialism. But its corollary is nearly always the driving of a wedge between art and history, two disciplines, we are admonished, that best not consort with one another. Already we can see the process at work with Richard III. Even Harold Bloom, high priest of American Bardolatry, recently averred in Newsweek that “Shakespeare’s ironic, self-delighting, witty hero-villain has a troubling relation to actual history.” This is defensible enough, yet we should remember that there is no corrective for propaganda like a reader’s awareness thereof. If we arm ourselves with this knowledge, Shakespeare’s art can yield deeper, more illuminating insights into Richard’s life and times than we might imagine. However, if we divorce Richard III from the “actual history” we are insensitive to literature and, worse, we weaken our own understanding of monarchy, power, and history itself.

2.
In Shakespeare we encounter Richard III as an evil genius, one theatric-evolutionary step beyond the Vice character of medieval morality plays. Richard deceives and beguiles his way to the crown, killing off his rivals and then his friends until he has only ghosts to attend him. There is a clear logical schema for all this hell raising: the man is a monster, a hideous swamp-world creature, “Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time / Into this breathing world scarce half made up.” His monstrosity served him in wartime, yet now civil conflict has given way to stable Yorkist supremacy under his brother Edward IV, and the bellicose Richard finds himself without suitable vocation. The weapons have been hung up on the walls, and the lutes come down for seduction and other trifles of peace. “Since I cannot prove a lover / I am determined to prove a villain,” Richard intones, and that’s that.

And yet Shakespeare just doesn’t come sans complication. Richard is too clever a thespian, too candid a soliloquist, and, belatedly, too tormented by conscience to lose all title to sympathy from the audience. He is too conflicted and desperate in his final scenes to bunk amicably with Iago in the prison of Shakespearean opprobrium — Iago who, like a mischievous alien beamed down to Venice exclusively to fuck with Othello, just sort of shuts down after Desdemona is murdered. In fact, Richard’s near-remorse on the eve of the fatal Battle of Bosworth Field provides material for some of the most contorted, dialogic, and self-conscious lines in the Complete Works. After a night of visitations from the ghosts of his victims, a frightened Richard “Starteth up out of a dream”:
What do I fear? Myself? There’s none else by.
Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.
Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am.
Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why:
Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?
…Alas, I rather hate myself
For hateful deeds committed by myself!
I am a villain. Yet I lie, I am not.
Fool, of thyself speak well. Fool, do not flatter.
What happened to the cool calculation and protean slipperiness of the old sly Richard? Whence this fabulously split subject, marooned by his own malfeasance? This Richard improbably presages the dazzling self-doubt of Gerard Manley Hopkins, the late-19th-century disconsolate and poet of brooding, rhyme-packed, sprung-rhythm verse. Turns out this most detestable of English kings, killer of little boys, and bane of decent folk everywhere also clutches that thing Hamlet purports to have, “that within which passes show,” a deeper interiority, a nagging conscience, an ego turned on itself. And yet Richard, like a good schoolboy intent on completing an assignment, has proved a villain. So why does he quake?

The pith of the tale, for modern viewers at least, is that even as Richard proves a villain, he disproves the concept of pure villainy — at the end of the day, a much more consequential disproof than proof. The question at hand is not whether Richard kills people, rides roughshod over morality, or perversely revels in doing so. The problem for us — we distant modern viewers who have seen so many kings come and go in these history plays — is that as soon as Richard affixes the label of villainy to himself the label starts to lose its distinction, to melt into the milieu of political violence.

3.
The other part of the “story” in the exhumation of Richard III — the interest over and beyond monarchic infatuation and historical import — also had to do with our abiding lust for proof. This time it came not from Tudor ideology but from the de-politicized precincts of scientific empiricism. And what proof: the identity of the bones of Richard the Third has been settled in a bravura display of genetic testing, radiocarbon dating, and advanced anthropological sleuthing. Mitochondrial DNA found in a tooth pulled from Richard’s jaw matches mitochondrial DNA of two descendants of his sister, one Michael Ibsen, furniture maker of London, and a second anonymous relation.

As the story broke I joined the multitudes of media viewers in satiating my curiosity and awe. I read the articles, gaped at the curved spine, scrutinized the nasty blow to the head. I went on YouTube and found the videos produced by the University of Leicester detailing all of the digging, extracting, and testing done to get to the elusive bones, and then to their precious DNA cargo. Suddenly Richard III became a marvel of scientific certitude, a job-well-done of today’s sophisticated epistemological techniques. Now we know.

“What do we know? Know Richard? There’s none else by…” So the bones are Richard’s. As he might have said, “I am I.” But the tautology does us as much good as it did the roles’ first interpreter, Richard Burbage, when he declared it before an Elizabethan audience. It was as if the moment Richard’s mortal remains hit the Internet, he ceased to be a villain or a politician and became merely a curiosity, stripped of intrigue or depth, a subject of pop historian enthusiasm.

To be sure, it was a banner day for the Richard III Society, the organization which, since 1924, has dedicated itself to promoting a rehabilitated Richard. Members of the group, which as it happens is patronized by the current Duke of Gloucester, raised $250,000 to support the search for Richard’s grave and his genetic testing. It was money well spent. As one organizer told the New York Times, “Now we can rebury him with honor, and we can rebury him as a king.” This defanged, refurbished king was a civic-minded administrator who improved the commons’ channels for airing grievances and lifted bans on printing. His violence was understandable given the times. As for the young princes in the Tower — who really knows what happened.

We all want to be remembered well, and that’s a hard proposition when you die on the losing side of bitter dynastic struggle. The Richard III Society may be correct in asserting that Richard was vilified without substantial proof. There is proof Richard did enact some nice, forward-thinking policies — as solid proof that the parking lot bones once fit together to form Richard’s scoliotic frame. But there’s something meretricious, or perhaps just distracting, about the whole question of proof in this case. If Richard wasn’t as bad as we think he is, there also seems to be no need to truly pal around with his ghost. To invoke a touchstone of modern political affability, Richard probably wasn’t a guy you’d want to have a beer with, a power-hungry warlord at best. And it remains likely that much of the evidence that would prove or disprove Richard’s rotten reputation has been lost.

That’s no reason to gag Richard’s supporters — let them toast to their gallant White Boar if they want — but the lessons worth drawing from the whole business are too important to be lost in the penumbras of medieval recordkeeping or the weirdness of historical fanclubs. This is true especially when the crux of the lesson can be found in Shakespeare’s plays. By this I mean that, besides celebrating the Tudor ascension, Richard III and the other history plays demonstrate time and again the precarity, anxieties, and senselessness of the whole monarchical enterprise. No one belongs on the throne, not Richard and not Henry Tudor, but each must believe he does. Thus, it’s not that Richard III is so off the mark in representing the spirit of its subject. Rather, the great falsehood, deeply rooted and insidious to this day, is the belief that all the other players in the sordid history were so dissimilar from the scheming Duke of Gloucester. The theatrical Richard’s manic fear of self-harm (“Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?”) bespeaks the big idea here: his violence is selfsame with a larger violence, a culture of conflict that will undo him.

Thus, a fascinating paradox is at work in Richard III, one with far-reaching implications for our notions about the proper relationship between art and history. It so happens that a piece of literature drenched in historical revisionism nonetheless captures Richard’s zeitgeist with impressive moral and political clarity. Our own pop-historical gaze seems downright blurry by contrast. How can this be? It seems the paradox is an effect of repression: due to our liberalist preference for transparency, information, and empiricism, we refuse to peddle in political myths. But our romance with regalia suggests their attractiveness; we maintain an unacknowledged appetite for a power system whose very structure rests upon the myth and spectacle of an unverifiable claim to kingship.

Shakespeare’s art, on the other hand, luxuriates in this kind of myth. Writing centuries later about Dostoevsky, the critic Mikhail Bakhtin described how the great Russian novelist transformed the monologic “idea” into the living “image of an idea,” the irreducible dialogue that composes a single idea. This is precisely the mechanism of Richard III, a dramatic work that is not interested in dispelling myths, but rather in giving them life, and then subjecting them to the logical pressures of experience. Long before Richard’s bones were exhumed and his identity finally proven, Shakespeare had already unearthed from the pit of Richard’s soul the essence of his character, the self-contradiction of his idea: “Is there a murderer here?” No/Yes. It’s not villainy, it’s politics: monarchic despotism that sanctions horrific violence. It’s the stuff of kingship, and it’s still going on. The embattled Bashar Al-Assad is, after all, a king in trouble too. He might pause to think on Richard.

Image via Wikipedia

Surprise Me!

BROWSE BY AUTHOR