Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Story of O

Probably you've never read the original Story of O, a work of "literary pornography" (that phrase may or may not be an oxymoron) written by some pseudonymous Frenchwoman in the 1950's. At least I think it was the 50's.  Don't run out and get a copy, unless you're, you know, into that sort of thing. It's about a young woman's kinky S/M adventures, which are described in disturbing, quasi-poetic (hence the "literary" label) detail. My teenage self was shocked and, of course, fascinated by all this transgressive behavior. To this day it's still the naughtiest thing I've ever read.

It has nothing to do with Othello, except in one sense: the letter O.  O is a letter, but also a number--zero.  The heroine/victim of the novel is called O, because she wants to be erased, to have her will--her entire self--obliterated through some sort of transcendent submission. It's kind of religious, really, except for the sex. I mean, saints and mystics all wanted that too--to transcend desire. To submit utterly to the will of another. Everyone wants a god--but some people want one right here and now. That's what masochism--sexual or political--is all about. O wants not to want. To have no self. To become, ontologically speaking, a zero. That, according to the author, is the mystical end/goal of all submission: to be emptied out by another.

Now Othello isn't a masochist in this sense--but Will was very aware of the O-zero connection. Othello, like that other tragic Shakespearean O, Ophelia, allows someone else to write his story. He's emptied out by another, by a bad guy who understands exactly where his weaknesses are. But Iago, too, is an empty sort. He says it himself: "I am not what I am." This can be understood both psychologically and ontologically--"I am not what I seem," but also, "I have no essence."

It's Hegelian, really. Both the Master and the Slave are empty without the other. A zero-sum game.

Iago's motives for destroying Othello--his stated motives--seem woefully insufficient. He offers two: one public--he was passed over for promotion--and one private--he feared Othello had seduced his wife. Now Othello is far too straight-arrow to ever be an adulterer. That's clear way back in Act 1. He won't even admit he desires his own wife, much less anyone else's. So neither motive is sufficient to explain Iago's actions. Samuel Coleridge famously referred to Iago's "motiveless malignity," which sums it up pretty well. He simply acts, for no reason, creating a tragedy out of nothing.

His name, Iago, is the Spanish form of James, recognizable in the city "Santiago,"--Saint James. But it's worth remembering that "ago" is also Latin for "I act." I-ago. I act. I make things happen. Never mind why.

I guess what I'm getting at here is that Othello is in many ways Will's most modern play--it's obsessed with "image," with racial and sexual difference--but on a deeper level it's just profoundly nihilistic. No one has an essence, really. Othello, philosophically speaking, is not what it is.

Cryptic enough?  Well, I'll explain what I mean when I really get into the play, in the next few posts. Today I need to say a few words about that other O.  Yes, I mean Barack Obama, our first African-American president. The subject of a recent, thinly-disguised political roman a clef called--you guessed it--O.  What does Obama have to do with Othello, besides the O thing? More than nothing, when you think about it. Obama, like Othello, is a charismatic outsider who ascended to a position hitherto closed to people of his race.

And, okay, that's where the obvious similarities end. Obama is unlikely to be seduced into uxoricide. He's unlikely to even lose his temper in public. But like Othello, our president seems to inspire a fair amount of motiveless malignity. And a lot of people on both sides of the political divide would love to see him lose his cool. Even just for a minute. There's a recent book by a conservative commentator called The Roots of Obama's Rage, which I find interesting. Now I confess I haven't read this book--the title sounded too, well, enraged for me. But really, that title says it all. I mean, what rage are we talking about here? The guy never breaks a sweat. Mostly Obama enrages other people, simply by not being enraged, or outraged, or passionate, or anything but cool and controlled. But this book seems more than anything to want people to think of him as enraged. Or maybe to enrage him, I don't know. The book's title argues that Obama is angry at the root. He's radically angry. Or maybe an angry radical. It's hard to reconcile that assertion with the Obama we see, but then that's the point. His coolness is just a facade. In private, below the surface, he's volatile, wrathful, and unpredictable. It's a good attack strategy, because we all know that extreme emotions diminish leaders, make them seem, well, feminine. Un-leaderly. At the same time, a real leader has to seem human and empathetic. It's a delicate balance that few can master.

For Obama, as for Othello, the stakes are even higher. One uncontrolled outburst and a whole bunch of stereotypes kick in. The angry black man. The violent outsider. The dangerous, volatile Primitive. Or as Roderigo puts it, the "extravagant and wheeling stranger." It's simply safer to hide behind a public persona and keep the private (implicitly feminine) world of emotions--even positive emotions--under lock and key. So both O's try hard not to get sucked into the private sphere. Because once a leader gets pulled into that danger zone, there's no getting out.

Look at Bill Clinton, after all.

My point, I guess, is that Obama's insistence on being nothing more than a public man, his refusal to get emotional, to show us anything of his private self, is a lot like the Othello we see in Act 1. Othello's not comfortable with the private sphere at all.  In explaining how Desdemona fell in love with him, he paints it as hero-worship, not ardor or even friendship.  "She loved me for the dangers I had passed," he insists, "and I loved her that she did pity them."  She loved my action-hero adventures, and I loved her for admiring them. This is Othello's version of romance. Desdemona fell in love with him because he was good at his job, essentially.

Significantly, this is not how Desdemona herself sees it:

That I did love the Moor to live with him,
My downright violence and storm of fortunes
May trumpet to the world. My heart's subdued
Even to the very quality of my lord.
I saw Othello's visage in his mind,
And to his honours and his valiant parts
Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate....

To hell with public opinion and authority, she says. I don't care how much public outrage it causes--I love him anyway, and I'm with him all the way. I'm not concerned with appearances--I saw Othello's true face in his mind, not on the surface of  his skin. Where Othello sees the relationship in conventional, even superficial terms, Desdemona is having none of it. She's not interested in appearances or surfaces. She sees the truth of the man behind the color of his skin.

This fundamental difference between the two--Othello's obsession with reputation and appearances, and Desdemona's dismissal of public opinion--is more profound than any racial difference could ever be.  Because Desdemona chooses love over convention, because she insists that Othello's skin color is irrelevant, she's actually calling Othello's whole world view into question. In philosophical terms, she's a Platonist, while he's an Aristotelian.  A true mixed marriage. This philosophical difference--which is also a psychological one--ultimately creates a gap between them, a blank place that Iago fills with his own malign and tragic narrative.

Next: Black is black. Except when it's not.

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