“There is no need for you to leave the house. Stay at your table and listen. Don’t even listen, just wait. Don’t even wait, be completely quiet and alone. The world will offer itself to you to be unmaksed, it can’t do otherwise, in raptures it will writhe before you.”
“…we must acknowledge at the outset that our concept of ‘social identity’ is a product of that culture (American political culture) and that only within that culture can an author’s racial, ethnic, or gender identity found a politics of cultural curricular revision.”
Media today is the single most powerful force in shaping our sense of identity, and of socio-political reality. Mass culture. In the University, the structural determinant goes back to the formation of the canon. As Guillary points out, today the literary curriculum is not the site of cultural production (or consumption), per se, but critique of the canon has been treated like the Academy Awards.
The problem of canon critique has always been (in the U.S. anyway) the perception of a sort of seperated field, isolated from the ideology of the ruling class, politically. Notwithstanding, the infusing of progressive politics doesn’t do much except create new canons of exclusion. And the bigger problem of course is the nature of the institution AS institution. In other words, once you are speaking from within the corridors of the University, you are practicing a sort of exlusionary principle of study.
One can open up the syllabus to new voices, but those voices, themselves, will likely remain without access to the cultural capital produced at the institution. The non-canonical works are treated as somehow subversive, or transgressive. The problem has always been the practice of canon formation, not the artwork itself. If Bill Bennet wants a return to “values of western civilization” by making sure students read Shakepeare and Jane Austin, he is of course not really talking about the works of Shakespeare exactly, but about a canon of hegemonic power.
“translate the (false) philosophical problem of ‘aesthetic value’ into the sociological problem of ‘cultural capital'”
As a side bar, if one is an independent writer and researcher, one is not allowed access even now to most data banks. *Project Muse* is a perfect example.
“Authorized users are defined as faculty, staff, students, alumni and library patrons of the subscribing institution. Distance learners, alumni, and other off-campus affiliates may access Project MUSE if their Internet access is through the campus network. Subscribing institutions are expected to enable access only to those people who are authorized users of the campus network.”
This rather perfectly defines the exlusionary principles of the University. What possible reason can there be for this rule? The institution teeters between its role as an apparatus of control, and at a certain level of economic exclusivity, as an elite club for those fit to rule. State colleges, junior colleges, and local schools of higher education, are simply training centers for obedience and docility. The working class are provided with what is little more than rote research skills. Elite private universities retain a sort of academic autonomy, in principle anyway, but increasingly the pop-fan anti-elitism is actually just a deeper layer of elitism. Looking at the (admittedly small sample) of course reading lists above, personally I’d be quite interested in taking Auden’s class. And I don’t even like Auden very much. So, what is that about? The ironic is the answer. Jackie Collins is an ironic appreciation.
I think, on average, I hear the complaint “I just have been so rushed, or I just have no time now, or etc” about five to ten times a week. Literally. People I know. I have no time. Half these people don’t work. Don’t have an hourly salary. Modern life is one of almost impossible minor and trivial responsiblities. And it is being transferred onto younger generations. That children somehow HAVE to be taken to soccer games, basketball games, and that dry cleaning HAS to be picked up, and that some forms for something or other just HAVE to be signed today, is the new exhaustion. It is a spiritual exhaustion. I often wonder if people just would buy ONE item for any need they have. One watch. One phone. One pair of shoes. One jacket for summer. One jacket for winter. Etc. Just one item. Now I am speaking of the white bourgeoisie. Educated, incurious, skilled but not passionetly so, and living on credit, and or inheritence.
In a sense, David Foster Wallace’s syllabus is the equivalent of a digital Google Map photo, and Auden is the equivalent of, at the least, the photographs of Minor White, say. The truth content of the artwork is being erased in most of these class descriptions. It is also, true, that all institutional learning is going to tend to reflect the values of a hegemonic system of inequality and domination. It is still better to engage with Dante than Jackie Collins, however else you slice it.
I wanted though, to look at more specifically the idea of tragedy, specifically Greek Tragic Drama, and to see how the translations and presentation of the “classics” was an expression of the dominant ideology of the West. There is no doubt a great book yet to be written, on the politics of Oxford and Cambridge’s classics departments, and the template formed in those early translations of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides. The basis of later translations of the works of antiquity into English came from John Dryden, in the 17th century. There is something of a Cromwellian sensibility at work, coupled to the upper class misogyny and colonial thinking in the main group of Oxford and Cambridge dons coming a hundred years later. Notwithstanding….
“…two of the most important translators from the standpoint of history were women: Jane Lumley, whose sixteenth-century translations are probably the earliest in English, and Charlotte Lennox, whose interpretive translation of Pierre Brumoy’s comprehensive Le Théâtre des Grecs in the eighteenth century introduced many Greek plays into English for the first time and also suggested principles of translation for later practitioners.”
Walter Benjamin, on translation:
“For what does a literary work ‘say’? What does itcommunicate? It ‘tells’ very little to those who understand it. Its essential quality is not statementor the imparting of information. Yet any translationwhich intends to perform a transmitting functioncannot transmit anything but information – hence something inessential. This is the hallmark of bad translations.”
The meaning of Greek tragedy is not to be found in existing translations. For they are, as Benjamin said, exercises in the inessential.
“Michael Ewans repeatedsome of the premises that underpinned his Everyman
Aeschylus series.Coming from an academic background in drama, his aim is tocreate a text that is ‘accurate’ but also ‘act-able, capable of being delivered effectively by an actor on the modern stage’. The trickfor Ewans is to find an idiom that does not‘sound over-poetic to an audience of modern theatregoers who, unlike the original audi-ence, are unused to verse drama’.”
Stephe Harrop and David Wiles
There is so much wrong in this single short paragraph that the mind freezes up in trying to find where to start. The first place to start, however, is with the institutional backdrop. To explain this, let me step back to examine the sense of global crisis, today, and more specifically, the imperialist war machinery of the US military.
“A classical text must never be completely understandable. But those who are educated and who continue to educate themselves must always wish to learn more from it.”
Today, the West, meaning primarely the United States, but to degree Europe as well, exist in virtual and often literal blood bath. A saturated morally curdled toxic emotional jacuzzi. If one were to only examine the US miltary’s bombing campaigns the last twenty years, roughly, it looks like this (per William Blum):
Iraq 1991 (Persian Gulf War)
Bosnia 1994, 1995
Iraq 1991-2003 (US/UK on regular no-fly-zone basis)
Iraq 2003-2011 (Second Gulf War)
Afghanistan 2001 to present
Pakistan 2007 to present
Somalia 2007-8, 2011 to present
Yemen 2009, 2011 to present
In all of these cases, the US military was dropping bombs with depleted uranium tips. In the former Yugoslavia, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, these have left a legacy of extreme birth defects, miscarriages, and immune system destruction. Birth defects so horrific that new medical categories had to be created. It is not polite to discuss this, however. Mainstream corporate media NEVER mentions it. I mean NEVER. The average American does not associate his or her citizenship, place of birth, culture, with war crimes. War crimes are committed by Arabs and Africans, and even sometimes by Europeans that are too close to Russian culture. War crimes are committed by people, if white, who use a Cyrillic alphabet.
“It is the task of the philosopher to restore, by representation, the primacy of the symbolic character of the word.”
For Benjamin, the Tragic is an idea. It is realized in stage space. But it is not *communicated* in stage space.
There is in Benjamin’s ideas about language something that feels borrowed or inspired by the Greek dramatists. For Benjamin understood clearly the bourgeois mission to classify and catalogue and to describe. To what degree did this impulse at classification presage an enviornment so horrific and intellectually paralysing that to not have an actual *experience* of it was an act of psychic self preservation?
Frank Kermode, writing of Benjamin & translation:
“Translation is not a means of conveying information; all good translations of a particular text, taken together, constitute an attempt to reveal some hypothetical ur-language underlying that in which the original was written; every translation is in a sense a contribution to the restoration of an ideal never wholly knowable. He even says that a translation is linguistically more definitive than an original, since it can no longer be displaced by a secondary rendering; but that is a flourish, and the basic insight (founded on no more than the observation that we really always assume a text can be translated) is a Mallarméan sense that the imperfection of languages, as revealed in their plurality, implies an ideal, l’immortelle parole, to the discovery of which each translation contributes.
It follows that the translator ought not to try for a version that sounds original in his own language, but rather that he should let the original taint his version deeply. “
Today’s institutional vulgarians, especially in theatre departments, but in literature as well, are intent on the exact opposite. The demand for making a translation “natural”, or the desire in directing Shakespeare, that characters sound *natural* is a kind of faded and tawdry intellectual backdrop to the classics. The desire that Shakespeare sound like Zadie Smith, that Sophocles sound like Avatar. The idea of tragedy is then reduced to an episode of Game of Thrones. Natural, but with a touch of british accent. ANY british accent. Meanwhile, there are growing drone bases throughout the world, and more and better weapons being developed. The United States used white phospherous at Falluja. A war crime. Yet, a character in the new series (produced by Speilberg) Under the Dome, ax ex-soldier, mentions he learned skills in Falluja. That’s all, no elaboration. Israel also used white phospherous against Lebanon.
It is reported that only 9% of Americans favor an attack on Syria. I believe that figure. But, I also know it’s meaningless, really, for those 91% against it will largely vote either Democratic or Republican next election. Benjamin, in his essay The Storyteller, said that after WW1, men returned home, from the battlefield, quieter, less expressive, less animated. Human experience had suffered a loss of value.
Today, with Google Maps, with cell phone technology, with digitalized world views in which every corner of the planet is photographed, the loss of experience has dropped even further. For those digital experiences are not the real place. They are screen images, and they resist experience. Even ocular ones. For the emphasis on “full HD” screens now is just a more intense distillation of surface. High resolution images, almost hallucinatory, and certainly not natural, are the everyday hyper-realist creation in our shirt pocket. It is as if the more a subject can point to the number of pixels, the concentration of pixels, the more experience need not be present. There is no searching of the image. No contemplation. Swipe the screen for the next image. Everything is gradually losing it’s hold on identity. The narrative is impersonal. Its Google’s narrative.
Except, its not even Google’s narrative, for there is no narrativee there. And here one can return to two ideas. One is Tragedy,. The other is what Benjamin saw in Medieval culture and art. For Benjamin sensed the acute psychological and spiritual crisis of the dissolving of antiquity, leaving a continent adrift spiritually, and in the Baroque cathedrals and paintings, all on the cusp of the Modern, Benjamin observed “The hereafter is emptied of everything which contains the slightest breath of this world,” and baroque man feels himself transported toward a “cataract,” toward “catastrophic violence.”
The catastrophic violence of the 21st century West is perhaps even more pernicious. Staring into an abyss of full HD graphic cards and high resolution pixels. Hearing the world on Altec Lansing speakers. The break of the middle ages, of a religiously ordered world, and of the narrow dogma that provided shape for daily life. If you were a serf, you worked. long and hard. But the world was also comprehsible, and the stasis almost a comfort, compared to the abuse and humiliation and shaming… and real threat of imprisonment, that the poor must deal with today. No set of stocks ever reached a half million viewers. The processions of mourners that passed, heads bowed, before the Cathedral, had the assurance of a Reaper whose work was regular as the clock in the town square. Life under a cult of technology, death is sudden, and it is extreme. People are vaporized. People are blown into literally countless parts. Or, or they just get hit by shrapnel, by a random bullet. They die in a car crash.
I have always believed that serious reading, at some point, provides a sort of psychic teflon coating, and more (probably not close to all) of hyperbranding and marketing slides off. It’s a crude sort of image, I know, but I believe it’s true. The deep reading of history, poetry, drama, and philosophy trains the mimetic faculty somehow.
And so today, into this vast cauldron of extreme violence, of a system manufacturing entertainment just utterly saturated in blood and mayhem, and living within the border of a war criminal rogue state like the U.S. today, arrives the selling of leisure as something one must extract value from, one must get one’s fair market share of “fun”. All this has neccessitated a dulling of cognition. More precisely, it has impaired these connective mental links that are needed for mimetic renarrating. The idea of Tragedy becomes a very small ceremony that has to take place hidden and restricted and almost covertly-
I do think people read differently than they did fifty years ago. I read differently than I did just twenty five years ago. I try to correct that, when I can, but clearly the internet has mediated the attention needed to even sit for a long spell and read Tolstoy. Reading today, mirrors the fragmentation of internet surfing.
“Just as a man lying sick with fever transformed all the words which he hears into the extravagant images of delirium, so it is that the spirit of the present age seizes on the manifestations of past or distant spiritual worlds, in order to take possession of them and unfeelingly incorporate them into its own self-absorbed fantasizing.”
Tragedy occurs against a backdrop of social trauma. Not all such backdrops foment the tragic vision, however. There was a report this week that during the congressional hearings on the invasion of Syria, that John McCain was caught playing poker on his cell phone. He laughed about it afterward. Pretty funny, I guess. Now, oddly, this sort of leads me back to the ideas I wanted to try to attach to each other. Institutional power over thought, state violence, and the trivialization of daily life. Not just the trivialization, but the denuding of emotional life, the de-valuing of the “idea” of life. It is interesting that a culture so terrified of the corpses of its family, so obsessed with clinically elimating the experience of death, of *seeing* death first hand, can then so deepen and intensify the image of death if it’s on a screen. Education really does factor into all this. The canon, the University as the repository of the values of Imperial power, has now (since the 1940s I’d say) marketed the idea of ‘education for all’. A democratic ideal where everyone has access to a proper education. Of course that was never true, and today there is little pretense made about the basic inequality in eduacational opportunity. That ideal was never believed in because the power structure insisted on teaching as a low end profession, economically. Teachers dont even make what a dog catcher makes.
In the US, the taint or odor of brimstone and religious hysteria has never left the culture. It remains a Puritan society at its core. Punitive and harsh and stoic. The Tragic is linked to allegory; in a climate in which objects and space take on meanings outside of themselves, in which the duration of the mimesis, the narrating back to ourselves, of the personal violence, can carry the moral gravity that single human life might possess. The violence is that scream of the past that resonates and echos in our heads, and we the audience must account for our complicity in what has appeared on stage. For drama, on stage, is a form of thought.
Today’s violence of the state does not just murder and assault indivuals, it is murdering and eradicating the pre-conditions for a work of Tragedy. For it is in that vaulting acute morality that the tragic resides. It is maybe what seperates barbarity from culture. The value of pain, of suffering. The cost of causing suffering.
John McCain plays internet poker, before voting to condemn children to months of terror, and perhaps death.
Today’s liberal, and as I’ve written before, a lot of the left, stage a sort of cynical anger for the purposes of debate. In a culture that has so throughly excised even the remnants of compassion, of the vulnerability of commpassion, the cynic is a savy navigator through the headwaters of domination. This makes sense also, if one thinks of Adorno’s critique of Beckett’s plays. Adorno wrote that Beckett’s work was “a history of the subject’s end”. Fifty years ago, Beckett was providing the autopsy for the death of Tragedy, and of meaning. We are living in the after subject times. Post subject. Adorno believed critical writing could “not recuperate Beckett”, and that in fact, philosophy lived in the shadow of how Beckett expressed meaninglessness.
Adorno saw bourgeois society on the wane, much as the stable world of medieval society waned throughout the Baroque. Only today, the waning is so irrational that thought cannot find a scale to comprehend it, at least not on its own terms.
Modern and post modern artworks tend to incorporate the history of art, whether as a negation, or an ironic comment, they rarely grasp the sense of the waning of rationality and the human in terms not themselves captured-in the deteriorating conditions of thought and emotion. In other words, the artwork’s conscious indicating of meaninglessness is not ever raised to social critique, let alone social critique rising to the level of asethetic form (as Adorno said of Beckett).
The tragic drama of Sophocles and Euripides, and Aeschylus, is something, probably, too far from us, to render any definitive judgements. And here I want to mention again the classics professors of Oxford and Cambridge, and the elite public school patina those translations carried. The daemonic and feverish sense of a single individual on scales, with an entire nation state’s moral
weight being balanced, is impossible for modern individuals to understand. The cheapening of pathos to bathos, to kistch, are stages on the seemingly endless spiral stripping away more and more layers of what makes us human. Individuals exist, and suffer, but ‘people’s’ perhaps do not as such anymore, or not in the sense they once did.
To read of Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, and the rest of the bloated blood ticks of Wall Street, and their plans for further de-regulation of banking, the better to carve out increased profit from the Syrian attack, is to see the pointlessness of the instrumental logic of profit, of calculus and the frightening empty center of such men. The ruling class now openly shows contempt. The sense of violence can be catalalogued from the Parish Prison convicts left to drown as flood water rose in New Orleans. The assassination teams of Blackwater agents, local cops, and just random white vigilantes as they executed somewhere in the neighborhood of one to three thousand black men. The sense of violence comes in the black op sites around the world. The midnight landings, the quiet air field, and corrugated metal quonset huts, the cindar block control towers, out on some small atoll, or on a lost frigid coastline in Eastern Europe, or just along borderlands of one Islamic country or another, hot and dusty, the impatient palms of those accepting their pay off. The violence can be catalogued in SWAT teams kicking in doors for low level warrants, or the routine beatings of those brought in on misdemeanors. The violence of contamination is the worst pehaps. Poisoned lands, whose only fertility is the giving birth of cancer cells. So toxic and radioactive, still, that whole populations have given up on life. They wait to die. They dont want children, they dont want to risk the horror.
There are two things to keep in mind regarding Attic Tragedy. The first was the development of a written prose. Prior to written language the Greeks used the term *muthos* to mean formulated speech (a story, a plan, or a dialogue). *Muthos* is part of *legein*, and allowed for compound expressions such as *mutholegien*. This is from Jean Pierre Vernant, and he points out further on that the language of myth was used for communicating to a group of initiates a secret knowledge. It was not for the common crowd. What is important to note is that even Aristotle was working within a context that excluded the sacred speeches. The Greeks recognized that a written text allowed the reader time to reflect upon and analyse this text. Oral storytelling was for pleasure, and the written texts for more rigorous examination. The oral speech was an incantation, as performance, accompanied by dance, as part of something akin to magic. The written text also belonged to everyone. The text was at the center of the community, in a sense. The point here is that mimesis came out of magic and dance. It was mediated by the development of text. And from another angle by the secret knowledge of initiates.
Into this comes Greek drama. There are a number of theories about what evolved over the next couple centuries. For the purposes of understanding modern violence and what Tragedy might mean today, what seems significant is that a dialectical relationship was formed between those actors on stage, linked to the familiar myths of Homer and Hesiod, and the sense of community, of this same audience owning and sharing the texts of Sophocles et al.
“When tragedy takes over the mythical traditions, it uses them to pose problems to which there are no solutions.”
Jean Pierre Vernant
It is Hesiod who first declared the ‘truth’ of his stories, his narratives. They were not simply inherited stories, but the product of a singular vision belonging to the author. It is here, likely, that one can find the origin of a cultural practice that incoporated mimesis and mythic elaborations, and that was given as property of the common community (though not, of course the slaves).
The ‘mythology’ of the Greeks was disparate and contradictory. And it was this system that provided a kind of thinking. A collective debate on matters of mortality and civic morality, two fields well intertwined, as well as a personal sense of fate, or morality, of responsiblity, and of violence. Violence was sacred violence. Anything else was debated as animal level expressions of base instinct.
“As early as the archaic period they recognized its (myth) value as a means of teaching, but an obscure and secret one. They considered it to have some function as truth, but this truth could not be formulated directly, and before it could be grasped had to be translated into another language for which the narrative text was only an allegorical expression.”
Aesthetics, for modern narrative, certainly for theatre and perhaps film, must find both a sense of the communal, and that allegorical expression.
What one hears again and again from theatre professors, and historians is the “playability” of a translation. I don’t actually know what they mean. You hear comments that make no attempt to excavate the hidden layers of the daemonic, of forgotten rituals and initiations. You get, as you did with that first generation of Cambridge dons, an elite Empire perspective — the Greeks were venerated, but condescended to as well. There were no works that attempted to realize the shared ceremonies of a complex mythology. Instead, this was replaced with kistch psychological explanations. Following that logic has given us the strained melodramatic bathos of most western productions based on these translations. Nothing, NOTHING of what is there in this work is worth saving, frankly. Its not Greek, its not particularly good poetry, and it is often embarrasingly camp in places. That influential school of Gilbert Murray, Francis M. Cornford, and James Frazer, however reliable the literal aspects of their translations, assumed they were writing of civilizational savagery from the heights of a civilizational superiority. Myth was pathological. All discussions of animism, and of sympathetic magic were going to lead to the perspective of advanced western logic, rationality, and ancient pre-logic. The love they bestowed on these artifacts is the same love colonial Masters gave to the native handicrafts. No amount of lip service to “the origin of Western Civilization” can disguise this.
In philosophy this can be seen in the difference between Heidegger’s approach to the Pre-Socratics, and that of almost any other thinker.
Finally, it is worth noting that Jung, or Eliade, or Kerenyi, or even Campbell, the effort is to syncronize the meaning with modern scientific construction. The collective unconscious then becomes some strange phylogenic transport mechanism for early symbols that still serve as cookie molds for “modern” man’s thought. The *psuche* of the Greeks, that deeply shared system of belief and sacrifice and ceremony, AND PERFORMANCE, cannot ever be ‘explained’ in terms satisfactory to an instrumental positivist of today.
Better work has actually been done with ancient Chinese and Tibetan texts and beliefs and practices, than with ancient Greeks.
Now, everyone from Jean Anouilh, to Ezra Pound, to Ben Bagley have translated these plays. Usually they translate translations. Often they translate translations of translations. There is nothing wrong with that, and in a sense Greek Tragedy as it is performed today is a short code for a certain classicism that allows for the new version to comment on the old version and make a superficial point (i.e. Neil LaBute, Luis Alfaro, etc) on contemporary culture and politics. What this is, really, is another commentary on the trivialization of art. When lack of rigour becomes something one is proud of, it is perhaps time to examine the role art is expected to play in the society.
Tragedy is saying not something else, but is saying what cannot be said any other way. It is saying the very thing it is. What that thing is, however, remains perhaps unknowable. The relationship between how is it said, and this thing it is saying, is a giant other discussion.
—A footnote on propaganda: On Ruder Finn and Hill & Knowlton. On the demonizing of Serbs, the erasure of real history, and then how it was repeated in Iraq and now again with Syria.