Sunday, March 14, 2010

Shakespeare and Tragedy

Of the origins of tragedy, little is known beyond the fact that it played an important role in the rites devoted to the worship of the god Dionysius in ancient (6th century BC) Greece; the word itself means "a goat tale." The plays now known to us as tragedies (a tiny fraction of what once existed) were performed in the fifth century BC in Athens, in the theater of Dionysius. Whatever else we know comes from the few plays that survive, and from Aristotle's Poetics, written in the 4th century BC.

Aristotle's comments on tragedy are highly abstract and on some points obscure but useful nonetheless: "Tragedy," he says, "is a representation of a serious, complete action which has magnitude, in embellished speech . . . represented by people acting and not by narration; and accomplishing by means of pity and terror the catharsis of such emotions." By "embellished speech" he means "that which has rhythm and melody, i.e. song. . .  Key elements of the plot are reversals, recognition and suffering. The best plot should be complex. It should imitate actions arousing horror, fear and pity. . . .  It is much better if a tragical accident occurs because of a mistake the hero makes instead of things that might happen anyway . . . . A hero may have made it knowingly as in Medea or unknowingly as in Oedipus."

In other words, tragedy does not concern itself with the random or accidental events or crimes that one might read about in a newspaper. It is a performance or representation, in poetry or song (spoken or sung by actors, on a stage of some sort, in a theater) of the consequences of some choice or mistake.  Aristotle does allow for the possibility of unintentional choices—of choices made, in effect, by a failure to choose—and he gives Oedipus as an example.  But Oedipus, who tries to avoid the fate that has been prophetically fastened on him, that he would kill his father and marry his mother, but walks into it anyway, the victim of some divine prank, neither chooses nor fails to choose this fate; it is out of his hands.

How much of this would Shakespeare  have known when he began writing plays in the 1590s?  Aristotle's works were available in Latin translations, which he read easily. More to the point, what were the prevailing assumptions about tragedy in the theaters of that time? Simple: tragedies are sad stories about the fall of kings, as Shakespeare's Richard II says in the play of that name. But Shakespeare's tragedies are not simple tales about the fall of great men or women; nor can they be made to fit Aristotle's prescriptions. Aside from Macbeth, who makes a bad choice and knows it long before it catches up with him, the choices that matter in Shakespeare's tragedies are the choices we don't know we are making. You know how it goes: you wake up one day to find yourself in a corner that you've unintentionally painted yourself into. Shakespeare's other tragedies are about the muddles and confusions that people unintentionally and for the most part innocently get themselves into. "What's in a name?" asks Juliet innocently; "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." But names matter in human societies, which have histories which can't be ignored. Hamlet, averse to acting, politically or theatrically, thinks—innocently—that he can escape from a world of hypocritical seeming by just being his simple, ironical self;  and ruins everything. Lear, Othello, Coriolanus, innocents all, ask the wrong questions and, totally muddled, corner and destroy themselves; Lear and Othello, like Hamlet, manage to destroy the people they love as well. Coriolanus comes to his senses in time to avoid that fate.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Discrediting the Object: Modernism and Modernity

 Vasily Kandinsky, seeing Claude Monet's "The Haystack" at an exhibition of French Impressionists in Moscow in 1896 said that this event "stamped my whole life and shook me to the depth of my being." What especially captivated Kandinsky was Monet's "discrediting of the object as an essential element within the picture." [I quote from Rachel Polonsky's richly informative review of Russian and Soviet Views of Modern Western Art in this week's edition of TLS (2-26-10)]

This phrase, "discrediting the object" aptly describes not only huge tracts of modern and modernist art but accounts for the fear and loathing it aroused in conservative or official minds. If the authority of the object is discredited, what's next? Impressionism set the alarm bells ringing in the 1880s and 90s and I'm not sure they have ever really stopped. A Russian critic writing in the 1890s about the "frightening" new art from the west said it seemed to be "penetrating secret and very dangerous places," another thought he saw the devil at work, another the "fruit of demonic possession." The totalitarian regimes of the 20th century were especially hostile to anything that might seem to discredit the authority of the state on any subject whatever. Democratic states on the other hand, which make no claims to omniscience, give a shrug of indifference: art, like religion, is of none of their business. So what if the authority of the object is being discredited? Objects don't have authority.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Tolstoy's War And Peace: Some Observations

I think it was Henry James who referred to Russian novels as great, loose, baggy monsters, and surely War And Peace is the biggest, loosest, baggiest of them all. Everything Tolstoy feels, knows or thinks he knows gets crammed into it. Please don't misunderstand me. War And Peace is certainly a wonderful book; but Tolstoy can also be very tiresome. For example he is fascinated by philosophies of history, as well he might for he is writing about a fateful moment in European as well as Russian history: Napoleon Bonaparte's misguided invasion of 1812, which cut his greatness and glory down to size and enhanced the power of Russia. But Tolstoy is not satisfied with being the painter of this epic tale; he considers himself a philosopher who can not only paint a picture but explain the historical laws that give this picture its particular form or structure. This is a subject that he never lets up on in the later parts of the novel. Yet for all his deep meditations on History, history itself eludes him. Though Napoleon is a character in his novel, Tolstoy makes no effort to understand either him or the great war (the first world war) for control of Europe which finally reaches Moscow.

There is something else that irks me: Tolstoy's use of his hero Pierre, Count Bezhukov, as his religious messenger.

Pierre, a gentle, good-natured, giant of a man, goes through life—or as much of his life as we are shown—passively, in a moral and intellectual fog. He marries a beautiful, empty, immoral woman whom he despises because he allows himself to be trapped into thinking that it's expected of him. And that's how it goes for him. He is a spiritual drifter. He drifts into Masonry and drifts into agricultural reform but is too incompetent as well passive and naive to get anything done that might have a chance of improving the lives of the serfs on his vast estates.

As the French army approaches Moscow, he drifts down to see what's going on and wanders onto the field of battle at Borodino—and finds himself at the critical point where all of Napoleon's artillery is aimed. Men are being smashed by cannon balls all round him but he is hardly aware of  it. When the city of Moscow is being abandoned, he remains behind. Why? He has no idea. As the city burns, he saves a child from the flames and is captured by French soldiers who think he has been setting fires. He is sent off to be shot along with others but the firing squad quits work—for no particular reason— just before it gets to him. He is cooped up in a shed with a bunch of other prisoners and when the French army abandons Moscow, the prisoners are forced to set off also. Most of them die on the march but Pierre is so big and strong that cold and starvation don't seriously sicken him. Indeed, for the first time in his life he is happy: "In captivity, in the shed, Pierre had learned, not with his mind, but with his whole being, his life, that man is created for happiness, that happiness is within him, in the satisfying of natural human needs, and that all unhappiness comes not from lack, but from superfluity [Pierre is a very rich man]; but now, in these last three weeks of the march, he had learned a new and more comforting truth—he had learned that there is nothing frightening in the world. He had learned that, as there is no situation in the world in which a man can be happy and perfectly free, so there is no situation in which he can be unhappy and unfree. He had learned that there is a limit to suffering and limit to freedom . . ." And so on. And a little later, after he has been rescued from this death march and is recovering, he feels again this same "joyful feeling of freedom—that full, inalienable freedom proper to a human being . . . He was astonished at how this inner freedom, independent of external circumstances, was now as if surrounded by the superfluity, the luxury of external freedom as well . . . . 'Ah, good! How nice,' he said to himself,' when they moved a laid table up to him with clean linen and fragrant broth, or when in the evening he lay down on the soft clean bed, or when he remembered that his wife and the French were no more. . . . That which he had been tormented by before, which he had constantly sought, the purpose of life—now did not exist for him. . . . He could have no purpose, because he now had faith—not faith in some rules, or words, or thoughts but faith in a living, ever sensed God. Before he had sought for Him in the purposes he set for himself. This seeking for a purpose had only been a seeking for God . . . ."

So Pierre, the spiritual drifter, discovers God; it is a gift bestowed willfully and gratuitously by Tolstoy himself, as narrator, because he would have it so. Pierre's opposite, Prince Andrei, an active, intelligent, supremely accomplished man, is forced to die twice, virtually, so Tolstoy can tell us, twice, how much he has learned to love death. These are the devices writers use when they wish to be sure their readers get the point.

For the most part, though, no one learns anything and in this respect War And Peace resembles Flaubert's far more accomplished work of art, Sentimental Education, which was being written at about the same time (the 1860s). Frederick Moreau, the hero (if that's the word) of Flaubert's novel, is a fool and a knave as one gradually learns partly because he isn't sufficiently intelligent or adventurous to be anything else, but also because post-Napoleonic France never became a society open to talents. For fifteen years, Bonaparte had drained France of men—at the rate of 50,000/yr. for 15 years— and money and horses, in the pursuit of glory and had left no lasting liberal or constitutional legacy. The bourgeoisie closed in on itself and became reactionary. A young man had to have important connections if he wanted to make his way. Corruption became a way of life.  Here's what Vautrin, the arch-criminal, has to say in Balzac's Pere Goriot:  "Do you know what an honest man is? Here, in Paris, an honest man is the man who keeps his own counsel and will not divide the plunder. I am not speaking now of those poor bond-slaves who do the work of the world without a reward for their toil—God Almighty's outcasts, I call them. Among them, I grant you, is virtue in all the flower of its stupidity, but poverty is no less their portion. At this moment, I think I see the long faces those good folk would pull if God played a practical joke on them and stayed away from the Last Judgement.
   Well, then, if you mean to make a  fortune quickly, you must either be rich, or make people believe you are rich. It is no use playing here except for high stakes; once take to low stakes, it is all up with you . . . you can draw your own conclusions. Such is life. It is no cleaner than a kitchen; it reeks like a kitchen; and if you mean to cook your own dinner, you must expect to soil your hands; the real art is getting them  clean again, and therein lies the whole morality of our epoch. If I take this tone with you in speaking of the world to you, I have the right to do so; I know it well. Do you think I am blaming it? Far from it; the world has always been as it is now. Moralists' strictures will never change. Mankind are not perfect, but one age is more or less hypocritical than another . . .I do not think that the rich are any worse than the poor. In a million of these human cattle there may be half a score of bold spirits who rise above the rest; I am one of them. And you, if you are cleverer than your fellows, make straight to your end, and hold your head high. But you must lay your account with envy and slander and mediocrity, and every man's hand will be against you." This pretty well describes the moral world that Balzac's
characters take for granted.

War and Peace shows us a society so bored, boring and out of touch with ordinary people—the upper classes speak French in preference to Russian which they regard as a barbaric language— that the young men escape to the battlefields as soon as they can, secretly longing to become Napoleons on their own. Though it is hard to imagine what Bonaparte would have done with Russia, had he managed to conquer it, it might have been a good thing if had. Thirty years later, nothing had changed, according to Chekov, who shows us in his plays a Russia whose ruling class has lost the capacity for managing its own affairs, let alone those of the nation.