Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Alien Nation



The Merchant of Venice is a comedy. It says so, right on the first page. Actually, it claims to be a "comical history," which may be something else entirely. History, as I suggested last time, is rarely played out in the comic mode--at least not until the passing of centuries grants us the luxury of irony. Richard III, if you'll recall, was said to be a "tragical history." Will has trouble with generic boundaries; this is apparent right off the bat, since this putative comedy begins with an exploration of melancholy.

Antonio, the title character, isn't feeling the joy. He's depressed, and doesn't know why:

In sooth, I know not why I am so sad.
It wearies me, you say it wearies you,
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff 'tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn;
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me
That I have much ado to know myself.


Nowadays we have drugs for this--which mostly don't work, in my (admittedly limited) experience. For confirmation of my suspicions, see this recent study. It seems to me Will has it right here--as Antonio's whining suggests, depression stems from a lack of self-knowledge, and no serotonin inhibitor's going to fix that. It's worth pointing out that historically, "melancholia" was a more encompassing term than it is now. We think of it as a synonym for depression, an enervating sense of sadness and psychic malaise, but ancient physicians and philosophers used the term as a catch-all for everything from generalized mournfulness to outright psychosis.  For theologians, it was a form of tristitia--sadness as spiritual sloth. If you were depressed, you were morally and spiritually lazy.

There's something to that, I think.  I'm not saying that everyone who's depressed is being self-indulgent--but speaking for myself, I often find that there's something morally slothful about giving in to melancholy. Which doesn't mean I don't occasionally do it anyway.

Freud distinguished melancholia from mourning. While we may mourn a lost loved one, he theorized, our melancholy stems from loss "of a more ideal kind."  We're depressed because something important is missing, but it's not anything tangible, like grandma. It's more abstract, and more about us. We need to feel connected, to feel valued, to know where we belong. Mourning is about loss; melancholia/depression is about alienation.


Marx talked about alienation, too--in terms that are, I think relevant to an understanding of this play. Capitalism alienates workers from the means of production--they no longer produce anything in its entirety (like a chair, or a pair of shoes), so they can't take pride in--or know themselves through--their work. They are cogs in a machine, and thus alienated from their human nature (the German term is Gattungswesen, or "species essence").

In case you're wondering, I'm not a Marxist--whatever that might mean in 2010, after the fall of communism and the global embrace of the free-market thrill ride. But the early Marx was very good a describing the psychic effects of capitalism. He was just lousy at prescribing an alternative. 

Marx couldn't have envisioned that a hundred fifty years later factories would be dead, and millions of underpaid people would work in service industries. There's a different kind of alienation in this work, I think--an alienation from one's own affect. I think of this every time I go to the grocery store near my house. I'm greeted at the door by a sixty- or seventy-year-old person who obviously should be retired, but now has to make minimum wage selling good cheer, i.e., by saying an animated hello and goodbye to shoppers who barely notice. It's dispiriting on so many levels.

To inject a little comedy into this gloomy picture, here's another:


Sorry--I found that in my web wanderings, and couldn't resist. Marxists are such a humorless lot.

Okay, enough levity. Back to our lugubrious comedy.

Antonio, the Merchant of Venice, is a capitalist in the Marxian sense: he doesn't produce anything but capital. He's an early venture capitalist, in the original sense of the term. He invests money in global "ventures," but in these early days of international commerce, weather, piracy, and any number of other disasters make the import business a very high-risk endeavor. While his ships are abroad, he waits.  He's essentially passive, and, like Marx's alienated subject, not in control of his economic future. His ventures are often highly leveraged--so his wealth--or appearance thereof--may, at any given time, have no liquid assets to back it up. In short, he's often broke and living on credit. Sound familiar?

While he's waiting to see whether he makes a big killing or loses his shirt, he's got plenty of time to think about why he's not happy. Historically, happiness is a relatively recent concept--in the distant past, being happy simply meant not dying of the plague, or being slaughtered by roving mercenaries, or unjustly imprisoned by some corrupt regime. Not losing your crops to drought, and starving the next winter. Not having all your babies die in infancy. Happiness was simply the absence of misery.  The American insistence that each citizen has a right to "the pursuit of happiness" is a historically unprecedented idea, an idea that's rooted in capitalist ideology.

The flip side of this attitude of entitlement--this moral insistence on pursuing personal fulfillment--is, of course, depression. The acute awareness of the absence of happiness. Like a lot of modern maladies, this free-floating sadness is a luxury.


So why does Will start the play this way, with a depressed venture capitalist whose only role in the drama is to borrow money he can't pay back? Well may you ask. It seems to me that Antonio--the guy who doesn't do anything but make money on other people's labor, whose only love object is a man who's chasing a rich heiress--represents the emptiness at the heart of Venetian society. He's the real locus of anxiety in this play--not Shylock. Shylock and his "tribe" are scapegoated because a society that has no cohesion--that lacks a genuine sense of community--needs aliens.Venice needs Jews, and Antonio needs Shylock--his shadow self--to camouflage the fact that they/he no longer understand value. Everything in Venice has a price--love, loyalty, honor. It's all for sale.

Antonio's "friends"--or entourage--try to figure out why he's so bummed out. Solanio assumes he must be worried about his ships--i.e, his current economic ventures:

Believe me, had I such venture forth
The better part of my affections would
Be with my hopes abroad. I should be still
Plucking the grass to know where sits the wind,
Peering in maps for ports and piers and roads,
And every object that might make me fear
Misfortune to my ventures out of doubt
Would make me sad.

Salerio (these two guys are like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, or Rosenkranz and Guildenstern) continues this thought. Consolation clearly isn't his forte, however: his efforts to "cheer" Antonio involve a very evocative--and rhetorically gorgeous--description of a shipwreck. Were he in Antonio's precarious financial position, he says, he'd be obsessed with sea disasters:

... Should I go to church
And see the holy edifice of stone
And not bethink me straight of dangerous rocks
Which, touching but my gentle vessel's side,
Would scatter all her spices on the stream,
Enrobe the roaring waters with my silks,
And, in a word, but even now worth this,
And now worth nothing?

It still amazes me that Will can put lines like this in the mouth of a minor character--his poetry is like those spices and silks, scattered on the stream, enrobing the waters. What I mean is, there's a profligacy of language here that reflects the extravagance of all the Venetians. A few lines later, Antonio will promise Bassanio all his money, his person, anything at all to help him in his quest for Portia and her fortune. Bassanio, similarly, will be asked to "hazard all he hath" to win her. Excess in all things is the Christian way, in contrast to Shylock's miserly hoarding of his money, his affections, his daughter.

Antonio insists that he's not worried about his "ventures," since they're spread out over many ships in many places. "Why then," Solanio presses, "you're in love."  Will drives home the point that love and commerce are pretty much interchangeable in the play--Bassanio loves Portia, but wants her money. Lorenzo loves Jessica, but runs off with Shylock's cash and jewelry as well. Antonio loves Bassanio, so he promises him everything he has. Again, it's a completely mercenary world.

Antonio doesn't admit to being in love, but his "fie, fie," isn't exactly a denial, either. Solanio decides to make a joke, then, acknowledging that Antonio's moods are a mystery. "Then let us say you are sad because you are not merry." This whole happy/sad thing at the beginning of the play obviously speaks to the issue of genre. Tragedy or comedy? Reconciliation or isolation?

For the three couples, there will be the usual comedic synthesis--in marriage--at the end. For the play's two aliens, Antonio and Shylock, no such happy endings. Shylock will be punished with an excessiveness typical of the Christian/capitalist world, and Antonio will remain alone, un-paired, with only his wealth to keep him warm at night.

But that's a long way off--we're just getting started.

Next: Money can't buy me love. Oh wait, yes it can. On credit!

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