Thursday, June 21, 2012

Rage, Revenge, Ressentiment

Near the end of  the movie Tombstone--which is still one of my all-time favorite Westerns--Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp are talking about the villain, Johnny Ringo:

Earp:  What makes a man like Ringo, doc? What makes him do the things he does?
Doc:   A man like Ringo has got a great big hole, right in the middle of him. He can never kill enough, or steal enough, or inflict enough pain to ever fill it. 
Earp: What does he need?
Doc: Revenge.
Earp: For what?
Doc: Bein' born.

Ringo is an old-school bad guy. He's one of those nihilistic villains that moralistic types (read: most of us, whether we admit it or not) like to dream up as a foil for heroism. The movie makes him a sort of Old West Antichrist who thunders through the landscape, leaving murder and mayhem in his wake. Westerns, in case you aren't a fan, have a lot of apocalyptic imagery. The Four Horsemen theme is almost a cliche--hence the Eastwood classic, Pale Rider. 

Westerns are quintessentially American in their insistence that good and evil are easily distinguishable. In Tombstone, the bad guys conveniently wear blood-red sashes, which gives them a sinister yet fashionable flair amid all the dust, dirt and moral ambiguity. Because, you know, guns don't kill people-- people kill people. People with black hats, or red sashes, or maybe hoodies.

We are a simple people, we Americans. Ever since John Winthrop declared our nation to be a City on a Hill, a shining beacon of virtue the rest of the world can only aspire to emulate, we've had a hard time with moral gray areas. The City on a Hill, like that high note in the Star Spangled Banner, is often just out of reach--if only we could get rid of the witches, the communists, the liberals, the right-wingers, the feminists, the tea-partiers...well, if we could just get rid of them, we would be awesome. And if we can't, we can at least imagine someone who might do it for us. A lone hero, armed with moral certainty and a six-shooter, will set things right.

But we don't even need this guy, really. What we need are villains. Really nasty, apocalyptically rotten bad guys. Facing off against these guys, anyone can be Clint Eastwood, or John Wayne. Because all heroes really need are unrepentant nemeses, people who deserve the nasty, violent ending the movie or story has planned for them. Otherwise our pleasure in movie violence would be kind of wrong, wouldn't it?  Twisted and voyeuristic. We can enjoy seeing someone get his head blown off if he's a really rotten person, because we get to feel morally righteous and enjoy the blood and gore. Let's face it, moral relativism and ambiguity put a real damper on our primitive notions of justice, not to mention our cinematic bloodlust. We need--morally, culturally, and aesthetically--our bad guys to be irredeemably evil. And the best kind of evil is the kind that has absolutely no motive, really, except the psychic and sometimes erotic pleasure of causing others pain.

According to Doc Holliday, Ringo wants "revenge for being born."  Hard to get your head around that--unless you're, like, a sociopathic killer. Or a charismatic, villainous leader a la Charles Manson, Hitler, or, in the fictional realm, Iago. As far as we know, neither Manson nor Hitler actually killed anyone with their own hands. They just inspired and goaded others to do it for them. These guys, of course, are more dangerous than your average run-of-the-mill Norman Bates, because they can influence others--often many others--to do their evil bidding. So why do they do it? Because it's a rush, I guess, having that much power over people. And because like Ringo and Iago, they had a big hole somewhere in the middle of them. About where we like to think The Soul resides. I know, that sounds like psychopop babble. But what else do we have? Moral philosophers haven't done much better than that, despite centuries of trying the explain the Nature of Evil.

This is what Iago means, I think, when he says "I am not what I am." There's a hole where my essence should be. Or maybe, "I am a theatrical construct, a creature of no substance." In a previous post, written way back when I was blogging Richard III, I called this kind of moral emptiness "ontological evil," by which I meant the kind of evil that recognizes itself as such, and revels in its awesome wickedness. You can check out that post here, if you are so inclined. Ontologically evil villains are usually in the comic book mode, like Lex Luthor or The Joker. At the time, I took the typically liberal/humanist position that ontological evil was itself an ideological fantasy, i.e., something invented to sway public opinion, often in evil or immoral directions. Thus, for Hitler, Jews were ontologically evil. He saw himself as the hero in a Manichean melodrama, sort of. He didn't realize that history would have quite another take on the business of genocide.

Now, however, I'm not so sure about what I wrote then. The opposition between "psychological" evil (e.g., Norman Bates) and "ontological" evil (e.g. Dr. No, the Joker, Lex Luthor) seems too simplistic to me. I think there's a third category, right in the middle, which is where most of us live. Somewhere between insanity and comic-book villainy. Nietzsche and Kierkegaard called this state "ressentiment," using the French word because it more accurately describes the self-justifying solipsism of evil in the modern age. Or, you know, because French words sound cooler. (Hannah Arendt would call this kind of evil "banal," but that word only makes sense in a world where one still values nobility and honor. Which, sadly, we don't.) The modern man of ressentiment feels his emptiness, his inferiority, his failure, and projects it outward onto an external scapegoat. This man sees himself as "good," but only in relation to the evildoers that are making his life a misery. He is, first and foremost, a victim. And as a victim who feels powerless to fill the lack of nobility in himself, the "great big hole," he schemes behind the scenes. He plots, and while he plots, he continually narrates to himself the list of wrongs that have been done to him and his kind.

You can see how the Internet has, among other things, fed the soul-sucking fires of ressentiment. There are lots of people out there seeking revenge for being born. People who, like Iago, "are not what they are"--i.e, people who are no more than the aggregate of the wrongs they imagine have been done to them. These people are very active on the Internet. Because the Internet is a place--or rather an ontological limbo--that rewards people for being "not what they are." It's pure theater, in all the ways the Puritans feared back in Will's day. It allows enraged victims to anonymously slam anyone and everyone deemed responsible for his/her victimization. It is the vehicle of passion and rage in what is essentially a passionless era.

Hmm. Topic for another time, perhaps. Now, back to our man Iago. Othello has been re-assigned to Cyprus, remember, before even consummating his marriage, and has given his wife into the "conveyance" of his good bud, "Honest Iago."  I'll have more to say about "conveyances" and "honesty" later.  For now, we're left with Iago and Roderigo, the latter contemplating suicide in the face of Desdemona's marriage. Iago gives him a pep talk:

Oh, villainous! I ha' looked upon the world for four times seven years, and since I could distinguish between a benefit and an injury I never found man that knew how to love himself. Ere I would say I would drown myself for love of a guinea-hen, I would change my humanity with a baboon.

There's a lot in this passage. First, we find out that Iago is only twenty-eight years old! That was older then than it is now, but really, he seems like a bitter old guy from our modern perspective. But maybe that's because of our inherent bias toward youth. It's certainly possible for people to be rotten at any age.  Iago claims that he, alone among men, knows how to "love himself." He doesn't mean "love thyself" in the new-agey sense of accepting yourself, faults and all. He means "look out for your own interests." Value yourself above all others. Make yourself--your needs and desires--the center of your moral universe.

We're all pretty good at this now--mostly because we've confused, or perhaps synthesized, these two ideas of self-love. Self-acceptance slides pretty easily into self-justification, unless you've got armed guards at the gates of your psyche. And if you do have those, you've probably got other problems. 

Like Richard III and, to a certain extent, Lear's Edmund, Iago is a modern guy. He believes in the Self, in getting ahead by your wits rather than your connections. He's socially on the borderlines, hobnobbing with the upper classes, but resenting them because he won't ever belong. He hates Cassio for being a foppish aristocrat, hates Othello for what he sees as pandering to the upper classes. He doesn't hold with old-fashioned notions of "virtue" or moral behavior. He is, at least on the surface, a rationalist, seeing love as a mere offshoot of lust. To Iago, power is the engine that drives the machine of the world, and will--not honor, or love, or virtue--is its fuel:

Virtue? A fig! 'Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners; so that if we plant nettles or sow lettuce, set hyssop and weed up thyme, supply it with one gender of herbs or distract it with many, either to have it sterile with idleness or manured with industry, why, the power and corrigible authority of this lies in our wills.

This little speech could have come straight out of a self-help book, couldn't it? No one today would disagree with any of this. It's all on us. We don't need no stinking moral guidance! We have the power to improve ourselves or let ourselves go to seed. This idea is the basis for our American notion of success, as something distinct from class or heritage. But for Will, it was also an insidiously baseless way of looking at the world. Because virtue is not a fig, it's the very stuff that makes our garden grow. Without it, weeds suck up all the psychic nutrients, leaving us with an ugly, chaotic mess.

And where does virtue come from? From breeding. From honoring the right order of things, i.e., the Old Ideas of nobility, honor, and social hierarchy. Iago himself proves this in the play--without a virtuous, noble foundation, will runs amok and destroys the world. In Hamlet's terms, life becomes an unweeded garden, full of poisonous undergrowth that chokes the life out of anything good, or nurturing, or beautiful.

Oh, and you gotta love the phrase "manured with industry." It echoes into the future with depressing, but obviously unintended, environmental implications....

Well, this post was several months in the writing. Time to be done with it, and move on. As Iago says, "there are many events in the womb of time, which will be delivered." Hopefully there are a few more blog posts, as well.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Courtship and Cannibalism

Romantic relationships have a lot in common with the Age of Exploration. (Who knew, right?) Everyone is looking for an easy route to emotional riches--a Fountain of Youth, a Lost Horizon of Desire. But instead of gold, silk and spices, we more often find a completely alien land, rife with unforeseen dangers. The natives don't speak our language, and some of them are armed. If we're not careful, we can end up consumed--eaten up by jealousy, or just the sheer force of some else's personality. Maps are often completely useless--we just have to hope the winds are with us, we land somewhere safe, and don't get cannibalized.

Okay, I think I've exhausted that metaphor--but it's something that I suspect Will had in mind when he wrote Othello. During the Renaissance, everyone was wild about travel narratives--despite the fact that many of them were more fiction than fact. If you enlarge the map above, you might notice a "cannibal tree." Yes, cannibals! According to some travel writers, the New World was full of them. Savages who eat "civilized" Europeans for breakfast. Or maybe dinner, with some maize and a nice Chianti.

Now, as I pointed out in an earlier post, Othello is stuffed to bursting with gastrointestinal imagery. When Brabantio finds out that his daughter has run off with the Moor, his grief "engluts and swallows other sorrows." Iago, resentful of Cassio's social rank and courtly manners, metaphorically transforms the latter's genteel hand gesture into a matter of "clyster-pipes," i.e., enema tubes. (Ick, I know). Elsewhere he speaks of laxatives ("coloquintida"), and promises Roderigo that eventually Desdemona will "gorge, disrelish, and abhor the Moor."  Similarly, Iago's practical wife Emilia describes men in digestive terms:

They are all but stomachs, and we all but food.
They eat us hungrily, and when they are full,
They belch us.

That's one of my favorite short passages in the play, not least because the final line actually ends on a sort of metric belch.

Of course the intestinal imagery is mostly Iago's. He's the one who sees human beings as gluttonous animals, driven by base desires. By contrast, Othello is the man from exotic--and therefore "savage" places, who's fixated on "civilized" virtues--honor, reputation, valor. He marries a high-born girl from a good Venetian family, because appearances are important to him. They aren't important to Desdemona, though--if they were, she wouldn't be with him. She loves all the things in him that he is trying to repress. And he loves all the things in her that she's trying to reject.

Where's when you need it? Any decent dating algorithm could tell you that these two are doomed.

Well, anyway. Othello and Desdemona are married. Offstage, before the play even begins. In fact, you have to read carefully to find confirmation of the rumored marriage--there's so much talk of enchantment and abduction and all that, that it's unclear whether or not the liaison has been formalized and sanctified in marriage. But Othello says it in Act 1--although in a syntactically odd way:

That I have ta'en away this old man's daughter,
It is true, most true, that I have married her. 

It's true that I have taken her, true that I have married her. He's being ironic, of course--because he's going to reveal that she was wooed and won, not simply "taken," as Brabantio assumes, via magic or some other insidious means. And how did he woo her? The way all the wooing/seducing/traducing happens in this play--with stories.

Which are, of course, a kind of magic--a conjuring of new possibilities, portals to another reality. Othello the adventurer, the world-traveler, steps into the small and circumscribed world of this upper-class Venetian girl, and, as we used to say in the olden days, blows her mind. I mean, think about it. Desdemona spends almost all her time indoors, with family. As an unmarried woman she's allowed no freedom, has no future beyond what her father plans for her. And then, along comes this amazing, exotic, and yes, sexy man. With stories! Action movies, starring himself:

...I spoke of most disastrous chances,
Of moving accidents, by flood and field,
Of hair-breadth scapes i'th' imminent deadly breach,
Of being taken by the insolent foe
And sold to slavery, of my redemption thence....

Indiana Jones, eat your heart out. Othello shows Desdemona the world beyond her walls, and it's a pretty exciting place. Is it any wonder she fell for him? I mean, many of us have had experiences like this in youth. Take a girl from a provincial Midwestern city, say, and introduce her to a guy who speaks six languages and has lived on nearly every continent. If she's got any imagination at all, she's going to look at the boring guys in her home town ("wealthy, curled darlings"), then back at the wild, untamed storyteller before her, and throw caution to the winds.

A couple of decades later, this guy will probably be filed under "bad boyfriends," but never mind. At the time, he was all her desires/rebellions/dreams wrapped up in a James Deanian package her parents were sure to hate. He was, in short, utterly irresistible.

Yeah, that was a bit of an autobiographical aside...anyway, back to the play.  Othello's stories tap into the current craze for wild, improbable travel narratives, and he makes sure to throw in a few cannibals, just to, um, spice things up:

...Such was my process,
And of the cannibals that each other eat, 
The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads
 Do grow beneath their shoulders. These things to hear
Would Desdemona seriously incline,
But still the house affairs would draw her thence,
Which ever as she could with haste dispatch
She'd come again, and with a greedy ear
Devour up my discourse....

This was my story, he says. Of far-away places and perilous encounters with "Anthropophagi," or cannibals that eat each other, and of men whose heads grow beneath their shoulders.

Hmm. I think I may have dated one of these guys.  I knew something was missing....

And of course Desdemona eats it up. Uh, literally. "With a greedy ear," she would "devour up" his tales. Yum, yum.

Now, considering how much of this play turns on stories that aren't true, perhaps we ought to think about this seductive travelogue a bit more. Really, Othello? Headless men? Cannibals? Really? I mean, how are we supposed to take this--as a fantastic but true tale that won the heart of the fair damsel, a somewhat fictionalized seduction tool? Perhaps the irony is only apparent from our own historical vantage point. After all, many people in Will's day--possibly including the playwright himself--read things like Mandeville's Travels and Hakluyt's Principal Navigations, and believed every word. But from our modern perspective, this soliloquy looks different. A courtship founded in fabrication, a marriage doomed by lies. Food for thought. I mean, um, something to think about.

So that's my first post in a long while. I hope to keep this going, and eventually finish the play! Now, though, I'm kinda hungry....

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Academics, Oxfordians, and Agnostics

This is my last completed authorship post--I left off here over a year ago. After this, I hope to go back to Othello, and finish up the authorship series at some later date. There's obviously a lot more to be said about de Vere and the Oxfordian phenomenon than I was able to do here...but this is it for now.

The last chapter of my authorship series deals with the most recent--and currently most popular--alternative candidate: Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford. Sounds impressive, doesn't it? Lots better than Will Shakespeare, Country Bumpkin of Humble Origins and Dubious Educational Qualifications.

So right there you see what's up. The Greatest Playwright in English, the Father of English Literature (sorry, Geoffrey, but no one reads Middle English, so you're SOL) must have been, surely has to have been, a nobleman. Now you may wonder why, in this democratic era, we still have a romantic attachment to social hierarchies from which the vast majority of us would have been excluded.

Personally, I chalk it up to the cultural one-two punch of Hollywood and romance novels. We just can't accept the idea that Shakespeare, whose words populate our lamest political speeches and most boring high school English classes, was just some middle-class guy who read a lot of books and had a totally awesome imagination.

No, he must have been...a pirate! Or at least captured by pirates! He must have hobnobbed (or maybe been illegitimately born to!) royalty. He must have had father and inheritance issues. He must have traveled all over the world to get ideas for his plays, because everyone knows you can't tell a story unless it's about something that really happened to you.

I'll say it again: If that were the case, most of the stuff in the fiction section of the library wouldn't exist. Or, if it did, it would be really poorly written.

Okay, you've got me there. A lot of the stuff on library shelves is poorly-written.  But seriously, writing is damned hard work, even if you're talented. I myself am a capable writer. And to get even this good required a hell of a lot of toil. I labored in the dark dungeon of academic prose for decades, until I barely knew how to talk, much less write, like a normal person. Then, after barely escaping with my sanity, I frolicked in the forest of fiction for awhile; while I didn't produce any deathless works of imaginative genius, I did manage to remember how real people think and speak. After leaving academics, I did a fair amount of commercial writing--ads, web content, business letters for various folks/firms in need of persuasive verbiage. In short, I've been writing most of my adult life, and occasionally getting paid pretty well for it.

And I still only write this well! But my point is this. A person who lives a thrilling, intrigue-filled life involving pirate capture and dangerous liaisons with capricious people in power would hardly have the time--or probably the inclination--to spend hours, days, weeks and years staining his fingers with ink in order to entertain and educate the rest of the world.  With a few exceptions, the nobility have tended to lack the imagination and fortitude necessary to leave a lasting mark on literary culture. They just aren't brought up to work hard.

That's not an argument, by the way. Just an observation.

Well, anyway.  On to Oxford.  Now it's been my experience that the Oxfordian crowd is a passionate, sometimes angry, and virulently anti-academic bunch. There are tons of books and websites out there promoting the Earl as the real Shakes-peare. Don't get me started on this hyphenation business--it's as annoying as the cipher-hunting, and just as silly.  I shall not be discussing it. Not to-day, not to-morrow. Not any-time. Because as a scholar of Middle English, I can't be bothered with silly ideas based on modern notions of orthographic consistency, or a flawed understanding of Renaissance printing.  That sub-ject is closed.

In order to fore-stall (okay, I'll stop) any unnecessary unpleasantness, I've prepared a Disclaimer for Oxfordian Readers. I don't imagine I have many, since this blog is really about the plays, not their origins, but just in case, here it is:

Despite my admitted lack of enthusiasm for the whole authorship question, I am not "against" your candidate. It would be thrilling if he were proved to be the actual Bard. I love historical revisionism if it's based on new information rather than ideological fantasy or academic retaliation.

Moreover, despite my fancy-schmancy degree and ivory-tower background, I am not in the "academic camp," either. I've got my own quarrels with the mythology of intellectual freedom and the Great Conversation. It's pretty much all crap. And hypocrisy, too. Many acclaimed academics--Stephen Greenblatt, for example--have written things just as speculative, improbable, and absurd as any anti-Stratfordian out there. And frankly it's just unfair that he's enshrined (intellectually entombed?) at Harvard and you all have only the blogosphere for your kingdom. I am not being sarcastic here--I mean it.

No, my quarrel is only with your logic. Because really, as interesting as they are, there is no evidence to support these claims. There is some coincidence, some correlation of events, and so on. But taking a coincidence for a cause is how people came up with ideas like Spontaneous Generation, remember.  As it turns out, the sun doesn't "breed maggots in a dead dog," but for centuries it certainly looked that way.
I have to say, there's more evidence for the Stratford Man than any of these other contenders. Contemporary praise from people like Ben Jonson, Thomas Heywood, John Webster and others certainly argues for Will. As does the power of the signature itself. No one has ever presented a convincing argument for "Shakespeare" as a pseudonym. Or a convincing argument that the use of pseudonyms was common--in the earliest era of printing, there was, if anything, even more anxiety about the veracity of "signatures" than there is today. But none of this is completely unequivocal "proof." It's just strong circumstantial evidence.

So, rather than take sides, I'm going to proclaim myself an Authorship Agnostic. This is not the coward's way.  It's a philosophical exercise in something sorely lacking on both sides of this dust-up: humility. Unless one can go back in time, it's impossible to be certain about very much in the way of historical fact. It could all be a conspiracy! Or the work of some Cartesian Evil Demon. I'm willing to concede that evidence may someday make this whole business clearer, perhaps to the advantage of Oxford or someone else. But I haven't seen that evidence yet.

In the meantime, I'm comfortable with uncertainty. Always have been. I have no problem with ambiguity, ambivalence, indeterminacy, and all that. I am, in the face of Universal Unknowables, humble.  Because without uncertainty, irony would be impossible. And irony is, hands down, my very favorite trope.

Um, that was meant to be ironic.

Anyway, with this in mind, I'm going to continue my exploration of the authorship controversy as a cultural phenomenon. I'm more interested in what it says about modernity, about our romance with the past, than I am in uncovering some infinitely receding historical truth.  In other words, I'm not going to argue here--at least not much. There are lots of Oxfordian sites, and a few devoted to proving that Bacon or Marlowe was the real Bard. I've provided links to those here on the blog, so you can delve into the fray yourself, if you're so inclined. My interests lie elsewhere.

Next:  Freud and Looney (and no, I'm not going to make a joke out of it)

No, next is Othello, and the erotic allure of travelogues. Freud, Looney, and the rest of the Oxfordian melodrama will have to wait, at least until we're back from our tragic Cyprian vacation.