Noah Millman

Savage Beauty: The Maids at City Center

Elizabeth Debicki and Cate Blanchett in The Maids at New York's City Center
Elizabeth Debicki and Cate Blanchett in The Maids at New York's City Center

At one point in the current production of Jean Genet’s The Maids at New York’s City Center, as Mistress offhandedly gifts her cherished red dress to her maid, Claire, she brags, “Alexander McQueen designed it for me personally, but so what?” Or something like that – I can’t check the quote because, obviously, Alexander McQueen doesn’t make an appearance in the original text; this is an interpolation by adapters Benedict Andrews (who also directed) and Andrew Upton.

It’s not a one-off; this a production determined to bring its material up to date, wrench it out of the class system and culture of mid-century France and situate it in our own, so that it “plays” once again, doesn’t feel like a period piece. So: Mistress’s bedroom is sleek and glass-walled; her commode, visible upstage, gleams whitely. And Mistress herself is played not as a wealthy matron, but as a strikingly beautiful young socialite, a woman not of the past but of the present, and the future, whose entitlement is all the more terrifying because her youth makes it more convincing that she will triumph.

So why, I wondered, were Claire and Solange, her titular maids, got up in the traditional French manner?

The Maids is, first and foremost, a play about role-playing. Claire and Solange, the maids, spend their days keeping Mistress’s world spotless, protecting her from the filth of life that they, inevitably, associate with themselves. By night, they take turns reenacting their own humiliation, taking turns playing maid and mistress in an recurring sadomasochistic ritual, culminating in the fantasy of finally doing away with their employer. When it works, the play simultaneously draws us into its games, making them feel real, and alienates us, makes us conscious of the degree to which we ourselves are playing out class and gender roles, and the degree to which the roles we wear trap and suffocate us.

Clothes are integral to those games, those roles; hence the rack of dresses and furs that crosses the entire stage, turning the whole apartment into a giant walk-in closet. But a French maid’s outfit, today, feels less like a signifier of class than a signifier of some kind of retro-kink, the kind of thing you might wear for a burlesque in Bushwick. Does he want us to take his whole story ironically?

Perhaps so. That would be one explanation for the acting style affected by Isabelle Huppert as Solange, which is all exaggerated gesture. Huppert skips about the enormous stage (nobody could quite feel trapped in this cavernous space, a real loss for a piece that should feel claustrophobic), waving her hands, wagging her head, and speaking in a thoroughly incomprehensible accent. It’s a thoroughly mannered performance intended, it would seem, to evoke the same past as her outfit.

But perhaps not, because we can also see Huppert’s face, thanks to another intrusion Andrews has introduced: roving cameras that project bits and snippets of the scene onto a giant video screen overhanging the stage. Now its a flower, now a shoe. And now it’s Huppert’s worn, lined, exhausted face, a face incompatible with irony. All that business, it seems, was acting – playing a part. The face is reality.

Or it could be Cate Blanchett’s face the camera catches, and then you’re really in for a treat. Blanchett plays Claire with a ferocity that recalls her bravura performance in “Blue Jasmine,” and then takes it way beyond. She careens from sneering condescension when Claire is imitating Mistress, to an almost Stockholm Syndrome-level submissiveness when Mistress arrives on the scene, without ever making us feel like she is “acting” – which is particularly scary because she, Claire, is acting, both when she’s playing Mistress and when he’s playing the meek mouse for Mistress. Apparently, says this play, we cannot even trust the most convincing performance of emotion.

Blanchett plays Mistress so well that, when the play opens, I was disoriented for a moment – because I knew that Mistress isn’t supposed to appear until about a third of a way through the play, and yet there she was. And then, when Mistress actually arrives, it becomes clear that her play-acting wasn’t generic; she captured her Mistress’s every tic and gesture. But there’s an extra layer here as well, because Elizabeth Debicki’s Mistress comes off as a younger, fresher, prettier, blonder, and, most alarmingly, taller (at 6’2″) version of Blanchett. Sometimes, it felt less like we’re watching a servant imitating her master, and more like a master of the art of acting imitating the latest hot young thing who’s taken all the good roles, and left her with the role of the maid.

In the end, I wasn’t sure what this production was trying to say – certainly not about the contemporary experience of class conflict in a domestic setting, which you would think would be an especially ripe topic at this moment in history. I don’t think the staging particularly served the performances; and though the video added an important layer to my perception of those performances, I also found it distracting.

But if I didn’t think too much about these directorial choices, and focused on the performances, particularly Blanchett’s, I didn’t worry anymore about what anyone was trying to say. Because it was being said so marvelously.

(That red dress, though? Didn’t look anything like an Alexander McQueen. Just saying.)

 Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . One comment

Japan and Britain: Two Tales Of Over-Extension

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

I just finished reading two books I purchased at the World War II museum in New Orleans: Clive Ponting’s 1940: Myth and Reality, and Jeffrey Record’s A War It Was Always Going To Lose, the former about Britain’s entry into, and persistence in, war with Germany, the latter about Japan’s decision to attack the United States in 1941. Neither book is new, and I don’t intend to use this space to “review” either – they were both worth reading, and neither is some kind of definitive “must read” text.

What struck me, after reading them back-to-back, was the similarity between the two island nations’ situations on the eve of war, notwithstanding their radically different cultures and histories, not to mention the different points in development of their respective empires.

Britain, on the eve of World War II, had an enormous problem of over-extension. It confronted a rising Germany on the Continent that already far outclassed it in terms of industrial prowess. In Asia, it confronted a rising Japan. It had global military commitments that far exceeded its ability to meet. And it had no money. Once Italy sided with the Axis and the Soviet Union signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, it faced the prospect of a multi-front war with only France for an ally. Once France fell, it faced such a war in fact, with no real allies at all.

The obvious thing to do would have been to appease Germany, but of course even if it could have been appeased (if, in other words, Hitler didn’t actively seek war), Germany could read the tea leaves as well as Britain could (better, actually, since they had a better measure of their own industrial capacity than Britain did). Given Britain’s relative weakness, and given that the power differential was progressively shifting in Germany’s favor, it’s hard to imagine anything Britain could have offered Germany that would have sufficed that wouldn’t also have been cripplingly humiliating to Britain, effectively making the British Empire dependent on German goodwill for its very survival. Attempting to avoid war without preemptive surrender, instead Britain got a war it could not possibly win on its own, and from which it was only able to emerge victorious by putting itself completely at the mercy of the United States.

Japan, meanwhile, notwithstanding that its empire was still under construction, faced a similar situation vis-á-vis the United States to the one Britain faced vis-á-vis Germany. Its empire-building ambition brought it into conflict with the United States, an enemy it could not possibly hope to defeat. And America’s strength was only growing; time was not on Japan’s side. The logical thing to do would have been to appease the United States. But again, America could read the tea leaves as well as Japan (better, because we had a better appreciation of just how vast our industrial capacity was relative to theirs). Appeasement would have meant accepting permanent dependence on the United States, and a humiliating renunciation of Japan’s imperial ambitions. If this course was ruled out, then war was inevitable, and it was better for Japan to fight on its own terms, and hope for a miracle – perhaps the Americans were cowards; perhaps Germany would defeat Britain and the Soviet Union, and give the Americans pause about fighting – than to suffer slow strangulation.

None of this is news. But it felt instructive, to me, to focus on the objective situation of these two powers, and ignore factors – culture, history, regime ideology, the personalities of the major leaders, even geopolitical strategy – that are so often the focus when we think about war and peace. After the fall of France, a humiliating peace with Germany may well still have been possible for Britain. War, by contrast, meant the very real possibility of outright defeat by and subjugation to Germany – and if it didn’t mean defeat, it meant permanent dependence on America and a loss of the Empire. Britain opted to continue the war. How different is that behavior from the behavior of the Japanese leadership – whom we rightly anathematize as monsters, but wrongly consider to have been mad to even have considered war with America.

I think about this often in respect to what America’s situation is going to be in twenty-five or fifty years. I think Daniel McCarthy is right that America’s rise as a neutral power was substantially made possible by Britain’s insouciance. We were free-riders, in effect, on British liberal imperialism, and then we took over the job when Britain went bankrupt. Nostalgia for America’s position in the late-19th century, or the 1920s, is therefore pointless (as nostalgia usually is). But the position we find ourselves in currently is a precarious one, because every rising power implies our relative decline, and precisely the powers we will most need to accommodate (because of the objective fact of their power) are the ones that it will be hardest for us to accommodate (because they will have a clearer understanding of that fact than we will).

The central geopolitical question of the next few decades, it seems to me, is whether a liberal order – based on free trade and mutual nonaggression – can be sustained on a genuinely multi-lateral basis. I hope so. The alternatives don’t look very palatable.

 Tagged , , , , , , , , , . 21 comments

Back To Iraq

U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Andy Dunaway
U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Andy Dunaway

And count me as extremely apprehensive.

It seems to me, the President is taking a gamble that a discrete application of force at just the right point will tip the balance in precisely the right direction to prevent catastrophe. I am very, very skeptical that this is a good gamble. It has almost never worked out in the past.

We do not have a political strategy for Iraq, or for the region, and so we cannot even say whether a given military outcome would serve that strategy. Are we encouraging the Kurds to seek complete independence, and the final collapse of a unitary Iraq? Are we planning to facilitate the ethnic cleansing of Iraq by helping Christians, Yazidis and other minorities get out of the country? Do we want Assad to defeat the ISIS-aligned groups within Syria?

I don’t think we have any idea what our answers are to these questions. We literally do not know what outcome we are trying to achieve, outside of the realm of fantasies about liberal democrats holding all the existing states together within their existing borders.

I am terrified by what ISIS represents. I think a case can be made that our top priority for Iraq and Syria should be defeating the group. Logically, though, that likely means accepting an Assad victory in the Syrian civil war and greater Iranian influence in Iraq. And accepting those two outcomes puts us on the opposite side from the major Sunni powers, particularly Saudi Arabia. What else will we have to sacrifice to mollify them?

Back when ISIS first came on the scene in Iraq, I argued that we have a moral responsibility to do what we can to ameliorate the situation in Iraq, but also that direct military intervention would likely prove counter-productive. As the situation in northern Iraq gets worse and worse, I stand by both views.

Even if our plan is simply to get the most vulnerable populations, like the Yazidis, out of the region entirely, there needs to be a much clearer articulation of how we are going to achieve that, and what is going to happen once that goal is achieved. Even more so if our goal is effectively to undertake a long-term commitment to Kurdistan. And in the absence of any kind of regional political process for containing and ultimately resolving the war, even the most limited operation strikes me as extremely risky.

I understand why we’re getting in. But we have no idea what we’re getting into here.

 Tagged , , , , , . 29 comments

Teaching Shakespeare, With Love

Meanwhile, sticking with Kevin Drum but returning to a more felicitous subject for this blog, a few weeks ago he asked: why can’t we teach Shakespeare better?

I remember enrolling in a Shakespeare class and looking forward to it. In my case, I actually had a fairly good high school English teacher, but still, Shakespeare is tough for high schoolers. This would be my chance to really learn and appreciate what Shakespeare was doing.

Alas, no. I got an A in the class, but learned barely anything. It was a huge disappointment. To this day, I don’t understand why Shakespeare seems to be so difficult to teach. Was I just unlucky?

Maybe – or maybe I was just lucky. I had an excellent, indeed, foundational experience learning Shakespeare in high school, and then another excellent experience with Shakespeare in college. And I’ve had a great time with Shakespeare ever since, going to the theater, reading the plays, and reading criticism.

I’m not sure I can put my finger on what made the experiences so great. My high school sophomore English teacher was a large personality, a very theatrical fellow (he was also my debate coach). The play we studied was Henry IV part 1. We read the whole play out loud, and Richard played the part of Falstaff – and played it to the hilt. That can’t have hurt.

But he also started off the class with a lecture on the history of the kings and queens of England, to provide us with the necessary political context to understand the story. That should have been deadly. And we spent a lot of the class doing close reading, looking in particular how particular words and images – son/sun, for example – recurred over and over in the text, weaving a pattern of meaning. Those are, in miniature, three entirely different approaches to the text.

The course I took in college was a lecture on the Histories and Tragedies. It’s been a long time, but my recollection is that a lot of the focus was on structure, but we also dipped into the various fashionable forms of literary criticism that were the style at the time (this was the early 1990s). Again, I can’t point to anything in particular about the approach that made me say: that was the key.

Books of criticism have similarly been all over the map. I really enjoyed Northrop Frye’s series of lectures, but also A.C. Bradley, Harold Bloom, Stephen Greenblatt, Frank Kermode, Marjorie Garber, Stanley Cavell - as well as books like Peter Saccio’s Shakespeare’s English Kings or John Sutherland’s collection of essays, Henry V: War Criminal. No one approach dominates in my consciousness. Shakespeare is too large; he contains multitudes.

We’ve been taking our son to Shakespeare plays since he was not quite five years old. He’s seen comedies, histories, tragedies and romances: As You Like ItTwelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing, Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Richard IIIHenry V, Hamlet, King Lear, The Tempest, Cymbeline. He’s seen several plays  - A Comedy of Errors, A Midsummer Night’s DreamRomeo and Juliet, possibly others I’ve forgotten - in multiple productions. Sometimes he’s been delighted and sometimes he’s been bored. If the productions are any good at all, he’s generally been able to understand what’s going on, notwithstanding the complexity of the language and the differences from modern usage.

So I don’t know why it should ever be hard to teach Shakespeare. Oh, I can understand why it would be harder to teach some plays than others – I wouldn’t start with Coriolanus - or what some of the barriers might be for students unfamiliar with theater, or terrified of verse, or what-have-you. But those aren’t the kinds of problems Drum is talking about, I don’t think.

It feels like the answer is right there in the Mark Kleiman blog post that prompted his comment originally, a post about Brutus’s “There is a tide in the affairs of men” speech and how it is mis-understood:

Brutus’s speech would have been a perfect scene to use as an example of dramatic irony. But I doubt my teacher had any idea what the passage was about, and the lit-crit we read as “secondary sources” disdained anything as straightforward as explaining what the play was supposed to mean or how the poet used dramatic techniques to express that meaning.

If I ran the zoo, students would first watch a good performance of whichever play they were going to read, and then act it out for themselves. That might actually give some of them a taste for drama. But it wouldn’t help them score well on standardized tests, so who cares?

See, here’s the thing: many of the most famous Shakespeare “quotes” are misused relative to their original context, and this isn’t something new. It’s not just “there is a tide;” it’s also “one touch of nature makes the whole world kin,” and “what’s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba,” or “now is the winter of our discontent” – to say nothing of outright misquotes like “where art thou, Romeo?” It is perfectly possible – indeed, easier – to be culturally literate without actually being cultured. Appreciating dramatic irony is much harder work than memorizing facts and quotes.

But here’s the other thing: Shakespeare works even if you don’t get any of that. If you don’t understand that Brutus is making a stupid decision? His speech is still great – and the moment still works in performance (or should). If you don’t understand that Juliet isn’t pining for Romeo, she’s wringing her hands about having fallen in love with a Montague? Her speech still works – because she’s also pining for Romeo, wishing he were there. These scenes work with and without that consciousness of irony.

And the layers of irony go deeper than Mark Kleiman acknowledges in his post. It’s not just that Brutus has the wrong strategy, and therefore we’re supposed to see “Brutus’s soaring oratory is entirely ironic; the scene warns against rash risk-taking rather than encouraging it.” The very reason we find Brutus attractive and Cassius unattractive, the very reason why Cassius needed Brutus in the first place for his plan to have a chance of succeeding, cannot be separated from the reason why Brutus makes the “wrong” move at Philippi. Brutus does what the noblest Roman of them all would do. Shakespeare isn’t teaching us a lesson about either military strategy or rhetoric. He’s showing us character and fate – reality.

More than anything, it seems to me, teaching Shakespeare requires love of Shakespeare, more than many authors, because Shakespeare’s greatness looms over him like an intimidating proctor, making us feel that if we don’t “get” that greatness then we’ve somehow learned nothing, prompting us to cut him down to our own size. None of that is necessary. Shakespeare comes in all sizes, rewards just about every level of engagement. That should mean shallower students come away with some emotional and intellectual experience that is meaningful, even if they never understood what the big deal was, while students capable of plumbing the depths get a glimpse of an author proper likened, like Julie’s love, to the Bay of Portugal.

 Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . 7 comments

You Know What’s Murder? Politics Is Murder

The Texas Tribune / cc Photo by Marjorie Kamys Cotera
The Texas Tribune / cc Photo by Marjorie Kamys Cotera

Kevin Drum asks a frequently-heard question:

Do anti-abortion activists really think abortion is murder? Or is their opposition merely an expression of their broad discomfort with modern sexual and gender mores? . . .

If you look at actions, rather than words, it just doesn’t add up. Lots of people oppose abortion, but with very few exceptions, they very plainly don’t react to it the same way they react to a genuine murder. Their emotional response gives the game away, even if they’ve convinced themselves otherwise intellectually.

[Rep. Steve] DesJarlais [a pro-life politician who, it was recently revealed, encouraged his then-wife to have two abortions] is a good example. If he had encouraged the murder of two children—real murder, of kids who were a year or two old—he wouldn’t merely be having a tough primary. Regardless of whether he had managed to avoid conviction for his acts, he wouldn’t even be able to run for office, let alone be even odds to win. He’d be a pariah. That’s how people react to actual killing. But it’s not how they react to encouraging abortion.

I think there’s a real point here – but not the point that Drum thinks. It’s not that abortion opponents don’t really care about abortion as such, but only about sexual mores, but that political language is necessarily corrupt because its purpose is pornographic in the sense that it is intended to provoke action, not increase understanding.

So let’s be a bit more flexible in our language if we actually want to understand. “Murder” is categorically unjustified and deliberate homicide. But there are lots of other kinds of killing out there. There’s negligent homicide. There’s manslaughter. There’s justified killing – killing in self-defense, for example. There’s killing in war. Then there’s the killing of non-human animals – routine killing for food as well as the routine extermination of a variety of pests.

The shorthand way you say, “that kind of killing is just wrong” is to call it murder. As in “meat is murder” or “hey, hey, LBJ; how many kids did you kill today?” Or, for that matter, “abortion is murder.” Saying that doesn’t mean that you intend to treat everyone associated with the act as if they were literal murderers. It means you want to awaken people’s consciences to the fact that, if they really thought about the situation, they’d see that murder is not an inapt description. It means you want to change the world so that, one day, slaughtering a pig, or carpet-bombing a city, or having an abortion would be seen, socially, as an abominable act.

I know a man whose mother, when in the late stages of terminal cancer, wanted to commit suicide, and enlisted his aid to achieve her goal. Which he gave her. His actions were illegal in the jurisdiction in which they were committed. He’s clearly, at a minimum, an accessory to a killing; depending on what he did (I declined to learn the details), you might argue that he’s guilty of murder – under existing law, not some hypothetical future law. Am I obliged either to conclude that I have no problem whatsoever with assisted suicide, and be an advocate for changing the law, or to treat him as I would treat O.J. Simpson? Why? Who made that rule, and whose authority compels me to follow it?

Do some animal welfare advocates really believe that killing animals for food is murder? Maybe not – but clearly some of them really do believe that killing animals for food is profoundly unjustified killing, and that the conditions under which animals are killed in modern industrial agriculture are especially evil. That doesn’t make them hypocrites if they stay friends with meat-eaters.

Do some opponents of American foreign policy really believe that the Iraq War amounted to the “murder” of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians? Maybe not – but clearly many of them really do believe that the war was profoundly unjustified, that those deaths should be on the conscience of every American, and that we must radically change our ways and make national amends for committing a heinous crime. That doesn’t make them hypocrites if they debate on civil terms with people who see things much more hawkishly.

Do some opponents of abortion really believe that it is murder, as in, no different from breaking into your neighbor’s house and taking an axe to her children? I doubt it. But clearly some of them really do believe that abortion is profoundly unjustified killing – heck, plenty of people who are pro-choice have moral qualms about abortion, at least in some circumstances, qualms that have nothing to do with panic about women having too much sex and everything to do with worries about encouraging a cavalier attitude toward nascent life. And they aren’t hypocrites if they stay on good terms with people who have had abortions, or encouraged their partners to do so.

Of course, if they have no reaction at all, are completely unfazed by the revelation that somebody who they thought of as being profoundly opposed to abortion turns out to have gotten multiple women pregnant and then encouraged them to abort, well, that would say something. But there’s a whole spectrum of plausible reactions that are consistent even with believing that abortion is categorically wrong – in and of itself, and not as a proxy for disapproval of the behavior that led to pregnancy.

To me, the story about Rep. DesJarlais (assuming the summary above is accurate – I know nothing about him) says little about the sincerity of the beliefs of those who oppose abortion. It says a great deal, though, about the corrupting effects of partisan politics on moral crusades, something I’ve harped on before in this space. I really, really do believe that the more seriously you take the proposition that abortion is categorically immoral, the more morally imperative it is for you not to hitch your wagon to the star of either political party. Nothing is more corrupting of the anti-abortion cause than its subsumption into a culture war that is fundamentally – fundamentally – about making it easier for politicians to get re-elected.

I recognize that, as someone who does not vote pro-life, that position may sound self-serving. But I assure you: though I may be wrong, it’s what I actually do believe.


 Tagged , , , . 13 comments

Shakespeare’s Elusive Politics

I’m sitting on line to get tickets to John Lithgow in King Lear in Central Park, so maybe I’ve got Shakespeare on the brain, but it really does seem like a bunch of people are saying sweeping and questionable things about the Bard these days, not just Ira Glass. Via Steve Sailer, I see that Noah Berlatsky thinks we should respect Shakespeare’s art, but be prepared to criticize his politics, because “Shakespeare was a conservative,”

in the sense that he supported early modern England’s status quo and established hierarchy, which meant defending the Crown’s view of divine monarchical right and opposing the radicals, often Puritan, who questioned it.

For all the complexity and nuance of Shakespeare’s plays, his political allegiances were clear. James I was his patron, and Macbeth in particular is thought to be a tribute to the King. It even includes a reference to the Gunpowder Plot assassination attempt at James. That reference is made by Lady Macbeth as part of her effort to convince her husband to murder Duncan. The villainous traitors in the play are thus directly linked to traitors against James.

Macbeth isn’t a one-off to flatter the King, either: Rebels and usurpers in Shakespeare’s plays are always the bad guys. . . . Othello shows that Shakespeare’s sympathies are not just with kings, but with any authority figure, as the sneaking underling Iago attempts to overthrow his noble Captain. It is significant here, too, that (as many critics have pointed out) Iago has no real motive for his animosity. He does not articulate a critique, or even a complaint, about the way Othello exercises power. Instead, he simply says:

I hate the Moor
And it is thought abroad, that ‘twixt my sheets
He has done my office: I know not if’t be true;
But I, for mere suspicion in that kind,
Will do as if for surety.

Rebellion against one’s superiors is presented as a matter of misguided jealousy and intrinsic spite. Similarly, the Puritan Malvolio in Twelfth Night, who aspires to the hand of a woman above him in social standing, is a hypocrite and a fool. The Puritan political resistance, or the Puritan ideological opposition to hierarchical norms, is never voiced, much less endorsed.

Jack Cade might beg to differ about the lack of voice for leveling rebels, though you would be hard-pressed to argue that Shakespeare ever endorsed his point of view. Nonetheless, I feel like this is far too pat. I have a strong sense that a cherry or two is being picked.

I don’t read Shakespeare as a political polemicist. He wasn’t Brecht or Ibsen. For that matter, he wasn’t Marlowe. But if that’s your standard, then Chekhov would also have to be classified as a conservative, which he most certainly was not.

I think it’s safe to say that Shakespeare accepted the social order as simply a part of his world. He didn’t write in order to change it. Did he endorse it, though? That’s harder to discern – among other things because essentially all the words Shakespeare wrote, he wrote not in his own voice, but for characters to say.

Take Ulysses’s speech from Troilus and Cressida, a frequent brief for the “Shakespeare is a conservative” proposition:

The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre
Observe degree, priority and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office and custom, in all line of order;
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthroned and sphered
Amidst the other; whose medicinable eye
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,
And posts, like the commandment of a king,
Sans cheque to good and bad: but when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues and what portents! what mutiny!
What raging of the sea! shaking of earth!
Commotion in the winds! frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixure! O, when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick! How could communities,
Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows! each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy: the bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores
And make a sop of all this solid globe:
Strength should be lord of imbecility,
And the rude son should strike his father dead:
Force should be right; or rather, right and wrong,
Between whose endless jar justice resides,
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
Then every thing includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself.

That’s a pretty emphatic statement on behalf of maintaining the existing social order and structure of authority. But it’s not Shakespeare’s statement. It’s Ulysses’s. Ulysses, a character generally understood from Homer’s time on down as the tricky, political one, the manipulator. Shakespeare’s Ulysses makes the speech as part of an effort to convince Agamemnon to endorse his plan to trick Achilles into returning to the war. It’s hardly surprising that such a speech would help win the favor of the person at the top of the social hierarchy. Moreover, Ulysses is a Greek, and the English in Shakespeare’s time disdained the Greeks in favor of the Trojans, who they considered their legendary ancestors. Why, then, should we assume that Ulysses speaks for Shakespeare in any way?

Berlatsky bases his case more on Shakespeare’s plots than with his words, but his examples strike me as distinctly strange. Malvolio, yes, is a social upstart and an unflattering portrait of a puritan. But is Twelfth Night a play that argues against marrying outside one’s class? Why, then, are we to applaud when Sir Toby makes a love match with Maria? Malvolio never argues for tearing down social distinctions; he’s a snob and a climber. And yet – he’s still a sympathetic figure! At the end of the play, Olivia acknowledges that he has been treated very poorly, as indeed he has, and admonishes her people. That’s one of the extraordinary things in Shakespeare: even villains like Shylock, Edmund, Aaron the Moor, and comic butts like Malvolio, get their moments to defend their perspective on things, their moment to justify themselves – and their moment to earn our empathy. Which is not the same thing as approval.

And what, pray tell, does Berlatsky make, I wonder, of All’s Well That Ends Well? Are we supposed to believe that Helena is the villain of the piece, and that Bertram was right all along in scorning her for her low birth? The play can certainly be read as a caution to the Helena’s of the world to be careful what you wish for, but when every single character in the play, including the King himself, calls out Bertram for being ignoble in character for making so much of the difference in blood, it strains credulity to think that Shakespeare’s art essentially endorses Bertram’s view of the social order.

Meanwhile, sometimes Shakespeare’s rebels are heroes. Brutus is the hero of Julius Caesar, the “noblest Roman of them all” – certainly a more admirable figure than the rabble-rousing cynic Mark Antony. Now, he’s also a pretty conservative figure, though not in the sense that Berlatsky means. He exemplifies a distinct set of ancient, small-r republican virtues that existed in tension with the ideology of absolute monarchy in Shakespeare’s day. But he was certainly a rebel. And certainly a hero. He was a tragic figure, but to compare him to Macbeth is ludicrous.

Another Roman play cuts more deeply against Berlatsky’s argument: Coriolanus. The common people of Rome are portrayed as fickle and shallow, but Coriolanus, an authentic military hero as well as the scion of one of Rome’s leading families – in other words, an aristocrat of merit as well as of birth – is a violent-tempered militarist who would rather kill all his countrymen than admit that he can only properly rule with the consent of the governed, and who winds up getting himself torn to pieces instead. Are we supposed to believe Shakespeare agreed with him? It’s hard to discern where Shakespeare’s sympathies lie in this dark tragedy, but if this is a brief for the worldview described in Ulysses’s speech above – which Coriolanus would surely agree with – it’s a pretty strange one.

The histories would seem to be the strongest ground on which to make the case for Shakespeare’s essential conservatism, but even here we find a noble rebel: Hotspur. Far from being portrayed as evil, he is universally acknowledged to be noble, and guided by high motives rather than base ones. He may be foolish – well, he’s clearly foolish, and hot-headed – but the very king against whom he is rebelling bitterly wishes that he were his son, that’s how much he admires him.

Indeed, the arc of Shakespeare’s history plays tells a very different story about Shakespeare’s politics, inasmuch as he had any, than the one Berlatsky tells. It’s a complicated story, though, so I’m going to put it in a new section.

*     *     *

Shakespeare began his career with a series of history plays – the three parts of Henry VI – that recounted England’s vivid, recent and traumatic past: the War of the Roses. It would be comparable to a young Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill starting their careers with a massive three-part epic about the American Civil War. There’s a sitting Lancastrian king, Henry VI, of somewhat dubious legitimacy, and a rival faction – the Yorkists – with fairly comparable claims on the throne, aiming to supplant him (and eventually succeeding in doing so). Because it isn’t clear who is the legitimate ruler, the land bleeds. A fourth play, Richard III, completes the sequence, with Richard serving the function of the “scourge of God,” eliminating, one by one, everyone tainted by a century of usurpation, until the field is clear for Henry Tudor, Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather, to kill Richard, take the throne, marry the last survivor of the rival house, get crowned Henry VII, and end all dispute.

This isn’t particularly good history, of course; it’s Tudor propaganda (though, also, really effective drama). And if that were all Shakespeare wrote it would make Berlatsky’s case fairly well. But that wasn’t where Shakespeare stopped. Instead, some years later, he set out to pen a new tetralogy, the prequels to these early plays. And the politics that emerge from the “Henriad” – the sequence from Richard II through Henry V - are quite different, and far more interesting, than the politics of Shakespeare’s War of the Roses plays.

Richard II is, I would argue, Shakespeare’s most overtly political play. It’s rarely produced, because it isn’t one of his most dramatically effective. But it deals with precisely the kind of question that Berlatsky suggests Shakespeare avoided: what do you do when the legitimate monarch is a ninny? Not someone weak and vacillating, unwilling to exercise authority – someone who acts tyrannically and has horribly bad judgment. What do you do?

Shakespeare’s answer is, basically: I don’t know. Henry Bolingbroke is plainly a usurper; nobody thinks Richard is an illegitimate king. Just as plainly, everybody who is anybody in the kingdom is hoping that usurpation works – Richard, from the moment he leaves England to suppress a rebellion in Ireland, loses essentially all of his support, and never gets it back. As Richard himself comes to realize, and articulate, there is no concrete manifestation of the supposed charism of divine right. It’s all just “ceremony.”

Richard II was a dangerous play to write, because it exposed the hollowness of monarchy’s pretensions to right. Supposedly, it was used to precisely the political effect that any monarch might have feared, with a revival being staged in conjunction with the Essex rebellion, and Queen Elizabeth herself crying, “I am Richard II – know ye not that?” (Though, there are more recent questions as to whether this episode has come down to us in a distorted form). Whether Shakespeare intended it to cause or stir or not (I doubt it), and whether or not it actually did, what it manifestly shows is a writer grappling with a genuine political stumper that struck at the heart of his world’s political order. That’s not something Berlatsky’s Shakespeare would do.

The next three plays, depicting the rise of Henry V from youthful wildness to sober military chieftain, continue to follow this central question: what is a king, really? Henry IV, Hal’s father, knows his rule is illegitimate, and spends his years of rule crushing rebellions by the same people who put him in power, yearning to go on a crusade to try to win divine favor to overcome the stain of usurpation, and fretting about whether his son will lose it all. In his last breath, he suggests to that son that he get himself involved in a foreign war; nothing would do better to distract the people and disarm his domestic opponents. This, Henry V duly does, invading France on a trumped-up pretext (the scene with the clergymen who bless the venture is breathtaking in its cynicism, and hilarious).

But Henry V is, very clearly, the picture of a good king – of some sort. He cleans up his act, and stays clean. He ruthlessly cuts off and punishes his old friends when they break discipline and threaten order, even having one of them hanged. He prays to God, sincerely. But he knows, all along, that he’s operating without any guarantee of divine favor, precisely because his father was a usurper. He is constantly trying to push responsibility onto somebody else, somebody more worthy – he tells his clerical advisors that if the war in France is unjust, it’s their fault, because they advised him he had right on his side – and is brought up short when one of his own men, whom he chats with around the fire while reviewing his troops in disguise, bluntly tells him that the king is the one who will have to answer for all the death and destruction the war will bring. It’s too heavy a burden for a mere man, who doesn’t embody the nation.

And so King Harry sets out to embody the nation in a novel way, not by developing a second, political body in the form of the nation, but by developing a second ear, a second voice. When he was still the prince, he learned to “drink with any tinker in his language,” and now, on the field of battle, he proclaims himself a Welshman, unites English with Irish and Scots, and then claims France as well, wooing his bride in a fractured French. He wanders among the troops at night in disguise as one of their number, and proclaims that anyone who fights with him will be made a gentleman, no matter how lowly born.

This is a new kind of politics, one we can recognize: one based on popularity, the common touch, an identification between ruler and ruled that is personal, not based on a theory of divine right. It’s an incipiently democratic politics, very far from the ideology of divine right. And it’s a largely sympathetic portrait. Shakespeare’s King Henry V isn’t a populist riling up a mob like Mark Antony does at Caesar’s funeral. He’s just a good politician – better than his notoriously political father ever was. He may kill his friends – he may commit war crimes, for that matter – but we can’t help but like him, because he seems like one of us.

*     *     *

Of course, at the end of Henry V, Shakespeare reminds us that it all went to shit when he died (and that he already wrote four plays showing us just how bad things got, in France and then in England). His son, Henry VI, didn’t have his father’s personal qualities, or maybe nobody could have held together the kingdom, and incipient empire, that Henry V bequeathed.

A vision of politics that says that legitimacy is important, and that without it it’s harder to rule peacefully, may well be called conservative – but if so, we’re setting the bar for conservatism pretty low. (Am I supposed to believe that anyone who denies, or even qualifies, Mao’s dictum that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun” is now a conservative?) What you can’t say is that Shakespeare wrote plays that blithely assume a world in which right ultimately triumphs, authority must be respected, and the most important thing is for everybody to know his place, and stay there. The very plays that grapple most directly with these questions portray a very different vision – a much more realistic, pragmatic and complex one than Berlatsky implies.

Steve Sailer ends his piece by citing Robert Conquest that “everybody is conservative about what they know best,” and saying that Shakespeare must have been a conservative because he knew so much about so much. I’ll buy that. The thing about knowing so much about something, though, is that it makes it ever harder to be definitive; the more you know, the more you know about how little you really know. That’s my kind of conservatism, and I’m happy to say it was Shakespeare’s. But a vast imaginative sympathy that crosses all lines of social distinction, and a healthy skepticism, even cynicism, about the designs of power, sounds like a pretty good description of my kind of liberalism as well.

 Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . 13 comments

The Mirror Up To Nature

I’m late in getting to the whole “it’s not relatable” business begun by Ira Glass’s silly tweet about how “Shakespeare sucks” and continued with Rebecca Mead’s lament, and subsequent responses by Alan Jacobs and Fredrik deBoer. But I have to throw my belated 2 cents in.

Let’s pass over the word “identify” – the word we’re looking for is “empathize.” If you say you can’t empathize with a character, what does that mean? Whose fault is that?

Perhaps it’s the writer’s fault, or the performer’s – perhaps they haven’t really shown you the character from the inside. Perhaps they don’t empathize with her themselves, don’t really know what she’s like.

Or perhaps it’s your fault – perhaps you’re unwilling to follow where this writer, this actor have taken you, unwilling to acknowledge a kinship that feels implicating, contaminating. Perhaps you just haven’t been reading, or listening, attentively enough to understand.

Sometimes it’s nobody’s fault – sometimes it just takes a lot of effort to get cross a chasm of mutual incomprehension. Works produced in radically different cultures, from long-ago eras, composed in different languages: these inevitably require a degree of mediation, sometime a great deal of mediation, before they can be understood well enough to be felt. Some contemporary styles are designed to repel the reader unwilling to put in that kind of work.

There are all sorts of reasons why empathy might fail. But the word “relatable” suggests that it’s the character’s fault. If she were different, made different choices, had different feelings, then I could relate. If all these other people in the universe would only be who I wish they were, instead of who they actually are, life would be so much more pleasant for me. I suppose it would. There are so many, many people who are . . . inconvenient in one way or another.

And not just more pleasant for me – implicitly, for anyone. “Relatability” is a quality imputed objectively to the object. The reader or observer is cut entirely out of the equation. You can’t do that with “identify” – you wouldn’t say a work was “unidentifiable” (or, you might, but you’d surely mean something like “unattributable” or something nothing to do with “relatability”). If I say that “I can’t identify” with Humbert Humbert, I might be admitting to my own lack of empathy – or I might be proud of that fact, convinced that anybody who could identify with H.H. must hare his pathology. It’s a question; it can be debated. But if I say he’s “not relatable” then I’m saying that it isn’t reasonably possible to understand him, empathize with him. The question is closed.

That’s what’s horrible about the word – not that it blames the author or performer (sometimes the failure really is their fault), nor that it demands a place for the self (we’re the only ones who can feel our feelings; “empathy” fundamentally means feeling someone else’s emotions as our own – there’s the self, right there), but that it involves a definitive closing of doors on experience. A conviction that I already know all that I need to know. About the world. About other people. About myself. And I just want to see that knowledge affirmed.

I think that’s what Mead was really getting at with her whole distinction between mirrors and selfies. Mirrors are places where we see ourselves – perhaps unexpectedly. Selfies are ways we show ourselves to other people. Saying, “that work of art is like a selfie” is like saying: that work of art is presenting a public persona (albeit a casual one), a curated version of itself. Moreover, a version that is functionally interchangeable with versions of all other selves – its function is social, not artistic. It’s saying hello. It’s reassuring me that we have something in common, rather than surprising me with the unexpected discovery that we do.

But what about those mirrors?

Well, as it happens, Shakespeare had something to say about mirrors and art – or, one of his most discerning characters did, at any rate:

[l]et your own discretion be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with this special overstep not the modesty of nature: for any thing so overdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. Now this overdone, or come tardy off, though it make the unskilful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve; the censure of the which one must in your allowance o’erweigh a whole theatre of others. O, there be players that I have seen play, and heard others praise, and that highly, not to speak it profanely, that, neither having the accent of Christians nor the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have so strutted and bellowed that I have thought some of nature’s journeymen had made men and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably.

“The mirror up to nature” – it sounds like Hamlet is saying that art (and performance) should strive for verisimilitude, should show us things looking (and behaving) the way we already know they do. Our pre-existing knowledge of reality is the standard against which we measure art. That doesn’t sound too far from what the “relatability” brigade might think.

Stanley Cavell, one of my favorite literary critics would beg to differ with that interpretation:

Why assume just that Hamlet’s picture urges us players to imitate, that is, copy or reproduce, (human) nature? His concern over those who ‘imitated humanity so abominably’ is not alone that we not imitate human beings badly, but that we not become imitation members of the human species, abominations; as if to imitate, or represent – that is, to participate in – the species well is a condition of being human. Such is Shakespearean theater’s stake in the acting, or playing, of humans. Then Hamlet’s picture of the mirror held up to nature asks us to see if the mirror as it were clouds, to determine whether nature is breathing (still, again) – asks us to be things affected by the question.

Yeah, Shakespeare sucks. Indeed.

 Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . 5 comments

A Fast Not Chosen

Tonight begins the fast of Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, the Jewish collective day of mourning. All the great calamities of Jewish history are collectively ascribed to this day, beginning with the sin of the Golden Calf, continuing through the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, and onward to the expulsion from Spain. Traditional observance includes a 25-hour fast, plus observance of the other rites of mourning (no bathing, no wearing of leather shoes, no sex), plus the extraordinary prohibition of most Torah study (because studying Torah is a joyous activity).

Once upon a time, I found Tisha B’Av deeply moving. Chanting the Book of Lamentations on the floor of my synagogue, I felt the kind of primal connection with other generations across time and space that is so central to Jewish religiosity. Tisha B’Av was a time of longing for a return to wholeness that I longed for on a personal level as well – but also an important corrective to narratives of national grievance and triumphalism, a recognition of essential vulnerability, that God’s will cannot ever truly be known, His favor ever truly assured for any particular moment in time. Lamentations, after all, is just that: a lament, a cry of pain, not an accusation or a confession or a call to arms. And the sole traditional rabbinic text studied on the day is an account of the destruction of the Second Temple that begins with a dispute over a mistaken invitation to a party. Such a narrative is perhaps the subtlest way to undermine the perspective of the zealots of Jerusalem, that all that was needed to prevail was faith and will.

I haven’t been observing the past few years, though, and I don’t expect to be observing this year either. That’s part and parcel of a general falling-away that has accelerated of late. Partly it’s a sense that, in our day, with zealotry back on the agenda, lamentation feels inadequate. I feel more sharply the teeth of Vespasian’s unanswered retort to R. Yokhanan ben Zakkai in the rabbinic text I linked to above: “If there is a jar of honey round which a serpent is wound, would they not break the jar to get rid of the serpent?”

Moreover, they say those who fast assiduously will merit to see the reconstruction of the Temple in their day. I am not sure I want to seek that merit, nor am I convinced that fasting is actually the way to earn it.

If you want to understand what I mean by that, take a look at this marvelous article by my good friend, R. Joshua Gutoff, about the excommunication and rehabilitation of R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, one of the titans of early rabbinic Judaism. The piece presumes a certain degree of knowledge about Jewish sources, but I think it would be rewarding even to a total neophyte. I love it for the portrait it paints of these men, for the extraordinary empathy of his reading, neither exactly modern nor traditional, but really trying to enter the text as if it were alive. And I weep for the recognition of its truth that liberation and loss are two aspects of the same phenomenon of modernity – even if the modernity in question is nearly 2000 years old.

And its conclusion strikes me as extraordinarily hopeful – and important:

Rabbi Eliezer as outcast remained loyal to rabbinic Judaism at least as much as he had been as a disputant member of the Sanhedrin. Angry? Bitter? Resentful? To be sure. In disagreement? To the end. But by remaining a model of the true excommunicate – outside of the normative community but still tied to it – he may have done the people a greater service than did any of his colleagues. For as Judaism passed from the apprehendable world of God immanent to the chaos we know all too well, it needed an outlaw. Eliezer was that outlaw, and his excommunication did what trials do all too rarely in real life: it allowed the community to see itself, understand itself, define itself, in a way that would last until . . . Well, until the next great transition.

Outside the normative community but still tied to it: it’s a tough balancing act for an outlaw to pull off. But every community needs such outlaws – traditionalist and modernist alike.

 Tagged , , , , . 2 comments

Iraq –> Libya –> Syria –> ???

Daniel Larison, on Max Boot on Libya:

Boot’s criticism is mostly just another desperate effort to try to deny that military intervention and regime change are primarily to blame for Libya’s current state. This is akin to the arguments we heard from liberal hawks when the conditions began to deteriorate rapidly in Iraq: “yes I supported the invasion, but I don’t agree with how Bush has handled things after that.” They evaded responsibility for their support for the invasion by faulting the Bush administration for its poor management of the war, which presupposed that there was a realistic way to destroy another government without unleashing the chaos and violence that inevitably followed. Boot is much the same: he was all for intervening in Libya, but he doesn’t want the negative consequences of that policy to be linked to the Republican hawks that backed yet another ill-conceived war. One would have thought that the experience of occupying Iraq would put an end to the fantasy that a prolonged foreign military presence in these countries ensured stability and security, but it seems not.

Indeed. But here’s the thing: it’s not like alternatives to the Iraq model have worked out well either.

Iraq could not be stabilized for the long term by a direct intervention and a lengthy occupation. Neither could Afghanistan. We must have learned some kind of lesson, because in Libya, we reverted to the late-’90s model of the Kosovo War: we intervened on the cheap, and avoided any occupation, so as not to alienate the population. Turns out, Libya could not achieve stability on its own.

So in Syria, we mostly avoided getting involved. Yes, the Administration declared that Assad must go, made some half-hearted gestures toward supporting the “right” parts of the opposition, and briefly considered air-strikes before jumping at the opportunity to back down. But by and large America stayed out of the conflict. And Syria has descended into chaos, chaos which has spread to Iraq, and empowered an exceptionally odious and hostile terror group with pretensions to grandeur that rival al Qaeda’s.

I’m increasingly inclined to agree with with Richard Haas, quoted in this Doyle McManus column, that the 30 Years’ War is the best point of comparison for what is going on in the greater Middle East. The odds of our being able to engineer a positive outcome by any policy strike me as extremely long. Which doesn’t mean we can avoid having a policy – we are too big and powerful, with too many existing commitments, to be Switzerland. It means that policy is, inevitably, going to be characterized by a lot less “moral clarity” or “strategic vision” than American pundits tend to prefer.

 Tagged , , , , , , , , , . 16 comments

Jus In Bello, and Ad Bellum

I have been avoiding writing about the war between Israel and Gaza because it is just too depressing for words. I’ve read a variety of pieces that I thought were insightful; here’s one by Gershom Gorenberg, here’s another, an interview with Yuval Diskin, in Der Spiegel.

But I do want to take this opportunity to clarify something in my previous post about the Gaza War. In Linker’s piece that I associated myself with, he says that “[w]ith Hamas and smaller jihadi groups hurling rockets at Israeli cities from the Gaza Strip, Israel is clearly justified in responding” and that the lopsided body count is not in itself evidence that there’s anything morally wrong with the Israeli operation. He then goes on to argue against the war from a prudential rather than a moral standpoint.

I agree with both of Linker’s points about the legitimacy of a response. Deliberately targeting civilians, which is what the rocket fire amounts to, is a war crime, full stop. It remains a war crime even if there was substantial provocation. Once you accept that, it’s very hard not to conclude that a response of some sort is justified.

But that still leaves something important out of the equation – namely, the larger context within which the war is taking place. That context imposes not only prudential constraints, but moral ones.

Israel’s stated goals for this operation are partly military and partly political. The military goal is to destroy, or at least dramatically degrade, Hamas’s war fighting capabilities – destroy tunnels, rocket-launchers, kill or capture operatives, etc. The political goal is to get the people of Gaza to blame Hamas for the destruction wrought by the war, and turn against the organization and a strategy of armed confrontation with Israel.

Leaving aside whether the political goal is likely to be achieved – I think the opposite effect is more likely – it should be clear, from the overwhelming preponderance of the decisions of the current Israeli government, just how limited its political horizon is. Israel does not have a strategy for settling the conflict. It has a strategy, good or bad, for managing the conflict within its current contours. Israel is fighting to preserve the status quo.

That’s the larger context within which the war is being fought. And that context has moral implications for how the war may be fought, inasmuch as we should not desire the status quo ante to be preserved, but the status quo amounts to imposed rule not merely without the consent of the ruled, but over the emphatic, furious, unequivocal refusal of that consent. That’s why it’s fruitless for Israeli spokespeople to talk about how “the IDF deserves the Nobel Peace Prize” for fighting with “unimaginable restraint.” What you’re fighting for – not merely your tactical objectives but your larger strategic objectives – have bearing on how fiercely you can fight. Another way of putting it would be: granting that you can fight very fiercely indeed for a just victory, what would such a victory look like in Gaza? Realistically, not in an imaginary world where Gazans have a different mentality than they ever have in the past, or than other peoples have had in comparable situations.

[Update: thanks to the readers who caught the typo in the headline.]

 Tagged , , , , , , , . 15 comments
← Older posts