Narrative and Empathy

Raymond Hains

Raymond Hains

“Just like the operations of the consciousness, these scriptural graves are defective: there is a fissure in the construction, a leak in the system. In an almost totemic way, historiography is infected by what it touches as the past always seems to overhaul the present. And thus the real not only reveals itself in discourse, it also makes a disturbing appearance when writing is confronted with its own limits or, in other words, when the factory of history suddenly has to face its industrial waste.”
Alex Demeulenaere

“Strategies are undermined by unpredictability. Tactics make an ally of unpredictability.”
Stan Goff

“Narration created humanity.”
Pierre Janet

There is a fascinating dialogue between Fabio Akcelrud Durao, and Robert Hullot-Kentor, from just a couple years ago. Hullot-Kentor is a translator of Adorno. He’s a very interesting figure, though one (as I wrote last post) who I disagree with a good deal. But…the topics of both mimesis and space are introduced. And I have to confess, re reading his essay on Barbarism I find I am not at all sure what exactly the point is, but then perhaps it is that such points themselves are barbaric. (but Im not sure).

RHK: “Where there is space, there are objects of systematic management”.

That’s not exactly right, or rather not right at all. Hobbes wonderful quote is cited; “Space is the phantasm of a thing existing without thought”. But Hullot-Kentor does say “Mimesis is primordial to empathy”. One has to dig into the idea of mimesis, which almost everyone has accepted as Adorno’s impossible idea. Hullot-Kentor calls it ‘the involuntary karaoke of the self’. Which is more or less what I’ve meant when I say we re-narrate as we engage with narrative. Watching a film, we practice this karaoke, when we read a novel or short story, we re-narrate as we go along. In theatre, we don’t quite. And in poetry, I might argue, some poetry anyway, operates in a way much closer to theatre. Any good play is also always a poem. Its one of the reasons I’ve always suggested that playwrighting students read poetry. Read *about* poetry, and read poets on poetry.

Cleve Gray

Cleve Gray

Now I want to dig a bit into this idea of barbarism, but more as it relates to mimesis, and that is not really Hullot-Kentor’s focus. He writes :“Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, this becomes the thought that art as form is the unconscious transcription of the history of human suffering.”
This is correct, I believe, but the problem is a bit later the idea that Paleolithic rock paintings are *exclusively* mimetic participation in a magical object… and that Neolithic artifacts represent a significant change of consciousness, and of the human relationship to the group. So maybe in a sense, this is not correct, or not completely. Adorno was interested in the ways in which artworks enhance our relationship to the world. The artwork is only art if it changes you somehow. Hullot-Kentor is quite right, when he says this however:

“If art—when art is art—understands us better than we can intentionally understand ourselves, then a philosophy of art would need to comprehend what understands us. Thinking would need to become critically imminent to that object; subjectivity would become the capacity of its object, not simply its manipulation. That’s the center of Adorno’s aesthetics. It’s an idea of thought that is considerably different from the sense of contemporary “theory,” where everyone feels urged to compare Derrida with Nietzsche, the two of them with Levinas, and all of them now with Badiou, Zizek and Agamben. That kind of thinking is primarily manipulation. It’s the bureaucratic mind unconsciously flexing the form of social control it has internalized and wants to turn on others.”

Adorno saw much of human misery through the Freudian lens. His growing despair at the idea of effective change was probably pretty prescient in a sense.

Helen Frankenthaler

Helen Frankenthaler

But let me return to mimesis. The idea of mimesis cannot be separated from the past. Nor, really, from the uncanny. And from space — and by extension, from home and homelessness. And homesickness. History is the creation of a place; the past. Michel de Certeau suggests that history creates the past, as a place, to be studied from this other place, the present. That history is both made, and in the making is entombed. It is placed away in the tombs of the present. But this history is written down. Michel de Certeau wrote about the writing of history — in the sense that writing included a partial forgetting, and besides, there were traces of oral history that kept returning — returning as sort of trace elements. As accusations. I am approaching this for the moment from the perspective of art. And especially of theatre. Last posting included a comment thread debating various playwrights. I have kept thinking about why some writers, some playwrights anyway, feel so different. I have talked about the space on stage, but I wanted to add to that that the speaking of text is a way of recapturing the forgotten oral traces of history. Now de Certeau and Adorno both (and Benjamin) were interested in Freud’s anthropology, if that’s what we want to call it. And writing began to change the idea of exile, of home and of homesickness. Shakespeare enters at exactly this point. For the 16th century marked the ascension of writing, of writing as discursive. And of writing that was then spoken as memorized text. And I think this is largely neglected when people talk about or write about theatre. Theatre is memorized writing. And this process of memorization is then presented, performed, and all that takes place on stage is a revealing of this fact. One way to say this is that theatre fails when it forgets the history of its own making (rehearsal and memorization and direction and blocking etc).

Sadhus, streets of Mathura, 1950s. Photographer unknown.

Sadhus, streets of Mathura, 1950s. Photographer unknown.

De Certeau sees the *uncanny* as a clash or confrontation with the surpressed or forgotten voices of the past, those that written history left out. Edgar Allen Poe implied this in several places. Most good writers know the experience of voices coming to you. And no amount of scientific psychiatric or rational explanation is even close to satisfactory in regards to this. Sometimes things write you. You don’t write them. The play isn’t a thing anyway, it is a process of revealing. And to be etymological, it is revelation. This is one reason that improvised dialogue is so unsatisfactory. I have never believed ‘improv’ had any value for actors. It simply takes them away from their central job which is to transcribe something of those uncatalogued voices — the history of memorization, of memory. The history of memory is what all plays are about.

There is a very trenchant sentence in a review of Adorno’s early book on Kierkegaard that is cited by Hullot-Kentor. It was by Siegfried Krakauer, Adorno’s early mentor and friend.
“In the view of these studies {Benjamin’s} the truth-content of a work reveals itself only in its collapse…the work’s claim to totality, its systematic structure, as well as its superficial intentions share the fate of everything transient, but as they pass away with time the work brings characteristics and configurations to the fore that are actually images of truth.”

Mounir Fatmi

Mounir Fatmi

This is true of theatre, for theatre is so welded to time, and space, and the ephemeral — or the West’s idea of ephemeral — and a play cannot be repeated, only made anew. It is is transient. But this also touches on the psychoanalytic aspect of the artwork, which operates as a dream. A recurring dream, per Hullot-Kentor, that as it recurs and becomes familiar, the *content* of the dream fades away leaving what Adorno would call its *truth content*. So today’s audience for Shakespeare is not the same as the audience of 1600, the truth content of his work, of any one play, has emerged over four hundred years. But like dreams, it is impossible to nail down what that truth content is exactly. Historical truth emerges, again, a bit as revelation. This is also related to tragedy. The tragic drama of Greece were rituals of revealing. This spatial model, the idea of truth emerging, or something arising from the depths of the sea, a submarine or some submersible leviathan surfacing, or flesh falling off the body leaving only the skeleton — all of this is found embedded in myth and the artifacts of antiquity and pre history.
Nigel Cooke

Nigel Cooke

So, truth is revealed in the disintegration of the artwork. This is history as it interacts with memory, but also with the system of domination. And at this point, the questions of class and mediation by propaganda, and of screens — of learning, education, all come together. To return this to the discussion of individual artists, and in this case to playwrights, is perhaps useful. And it is important for how one approaches both education, and interpretation. Looking at, say, Caryl Churchill, the subject of a long testy debate on the comment thread of the last posting here.
A Party for Boris, (Ein Fest für Boris ). 1970, by Thomas Bernhard, directed by Martin Frauenhofer. Passau, Germany.

A Party for Boris, (Ein Fest für Boris ). 1970, by Thomas Bernhard, directed by Martin Frauenhofer. Passau, Germany.

There is something conceptual in her plays, it is a theatre of the conceptual. This overlaps with metaphor, but the narrative is enclosed and contained within a concept. This might serve to explain her extraordinary popularity. For the theatre of the conceptual (which I guess I’ve just coined) is one in which the play runs into a brick wall interpretively speaking. This is not to pick on Caryl Churchill particularly, for there are many far worse examples of this conceptual expression. Tom Stoppard is another example. The themes, and in Churchill’s case this is very true, tend toward an acceptable controversial posture. Some of this, I admit, is beyond the control of the playwright.The objections made in the Churchill debate, if I understand them, are countered simply by my saying that I find something manipulated in such cleverness. She is offering a new buffet item each time out.

The past is the past that has been written about. The historian, the historiographers are writing *worlds*. They create worlds to which the reader must travel. The question of fact is very interesting here because one of the problems I find in aesthetics today, as well as politics, is that it seems not to matter anymore what is true or not true. But this journey in reading, to this place located in the past, is another of those spatial models.

Dunhunang Star Atlas, detail. 1000 A.D.

Dunhunang Star Atlas, detail. 1000 A.D.

For in fact it is mimetic, the spoken word karaoke in your head. And not just in your head. Given the emphasis on the optical, the gestural language of performance is atrophying. When radio dominated things, the voice subsumed the gestural. Today, the body, as an instrument of performance, tends to be subjected to a lot of abuse, from starvation to cheek implants to personal trainers. The facts of the past matter, however. For they return, over and over. They return as rats return, as dogs to their vomit.

“About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or
just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the
torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything
turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”

W.H. Auden

Kirsten Klein, photography.

Kirsten Klein, photography.

When I have tried to write about space in art, specifically in theatre, I often feel the frustration of of how illusive this idea is. The conventions of just talking include these tacit ideas about space, “He knows where he is going” for example. Well, where? To the land of success, or Elysian fields, or the land of milk and honey. The whole idea of ‘goals’ is imbued with this illusion. Progress. Destination. Great art punctures these assumptions, in the introduction of an awareness about exile and homelessness. A walk in the park is not easy, actually. When narrative forgets place, and forgets the journey — that the journey is itself a place, it fails. Space in theatre is not Euclidean, it is a mimetic space. It is that unconscious and uncanny disruption of conventional location, and of the autonomous subject. Suddenly the familiar is haunted by the unfamiliar. In a sense, as De Certeau seems to suggest, it is by what is not written, not spoken, that something disruptive occurs. The act of explanation includes its opposite, this ‘space’ in which one hears what isn’t said. Theatre is so disruptive for this very reason. Pinter and Bernhard both (though differently) probe the elliptical in narrative. Their stories point the listener toward what isn’t said. Maybe what cannot be said. To step back and look at the control exercised by today’s authority apparatus, what you find is endless explanation. And this is the role of mainstream journalism, too. Asking for explanations, and not caring if those explanations are real or not. What would happen if the answer was ‘we don’t know’, or ‘ We won’t say’?

Dirk Skrebert

Dirk Skrebert

I want to talk about what I mean by a theatre of the conceptual. The word *conceptual* is very complex, and can be used in a variety of ways. It is impossible not to wade into very dense material here, for it is at the very center of aesthetic experience. Adorno’s dialectic was Hegelian, but owed a good deal to Benjamin. The dialectic is seen in the object’s opposition to its other, and whereby this opposition constitutes a kind of dependency. The object’s resistance to its other becomes an incorporation of the other into itself, so the more it is itself, the more it is not itself. For the purposes of this discussion, the point is that in art, in any medium, the extreme of this dialectical operation results in the truest picture of reality, of life. For there is always an excess that is the byproduct of this operation. And it is in this excess that I suspect the uncanny is, at least partly, located. This process denies the existence of fixed concepts; and it means the artwork’s meaning is found not as a reflection of the social, but in its opposition to society, its negation. The negation of what was for Adorno, a societal system of domination, means that the artwork has transcribed the suffering and unwritten and denied forces of history. The artwork that predicates itself, justifies itself, through a conceptual rationality, is then erasing or obscuring history, no matter how cleverly they discuss it.

Philosophy *is* conceptual, however. But it is a dialectical process. It could be said, that the conceptual I speak of is the undialectical conceptual. Here Benjamin enters the discussion.

“Authentic art knows the expression of the expressionless, a crying from which the tears are missing.”

Ken Currie

Ken Currie

Hullot-Kentor is very good on the influence Benjamin had on Adorno. I have written before about Benjamin’s ideas on tragedy, and it is related to what Hullot-Kentor says about Benjamin’s notion of allegory. Both are very close to what I think theatre is really trying to do. Hullot-Kentor writes; “the idea is to phenomena as is an expression to a face.” This is what the performance is to the text I think. It is not deductive, or conceptual (though concepts clearly play their role {sic}) — it is a presentation, an activating of something that finally cannot be rationally known. Allegory is a sort of double dialectic then. To place these thoughts again in the context of theatre, the form of the play (a play) is its expression of buried history, at the same time that it is a negation of the false authority of society (nature). It is of course hugely more complicated than I am laying it out here, but the point is that the meaning, the value of theatre cannot be summarized, or abridged in various explanatory cliff notes. The truth of theatre is in its performance. And that which *can* be summarized is, finally, not theatre. It is an illusion.

Theodor Adorno

Theodor Adorno

Tragedy is not a theme, it is an act of revealing. It is part of that dialectical extreme, and it participates in something very close to Benjamin’s ideas about *naming*. This was the very Judaic/Kabalistic side of Benjamin. There is that famous line in Dialectic of Enlightenment: “there is said to be no difference between the totemic animal, the dream of the ghost seer, and the absolute idea”.The sedimenting of terror into language, specifically into the naming of things, is that magical element in spoken text that differentiates it from reading to oneself silently. Both can be mimetic, but the range of the frightening is greater when it happens on stage.

“For Adorno, understanding a work of art is not a matter of conceptual analysis.”
Shierry Weber Nicholson

Wittgenstein oddly, sort of, comes to mind here.

“Think of the recognition of facial expressions. Or of the description of facial expressions — which does not consist in giving measurements of the face. Think too, how one can imitate a man’s face without seeing one’s own in a mirror.”
Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Martial Raysse

Martial Raysse

The domination of nature coincided with the neutralizing of language. Shorn of terror, the cry became the concept, Dionysian energy was expelled, superstition replaced by logic. This was the force of Enlightenment thinking, and the correctives were real, but less observed, the cleansing of that which allowed for the tragic to reveal itself. The tragic as a sensibility; and without that sensibility, the infinite domination, unchecked rational horror grows on the underside of the image and word. Negation, radical extreme negation — the concept’s self critique, destroys itself but becomes a memory, both of nature and of the individual. This is the Lacanian gloss on Benjamin/Adorno. This is the center of the Adorno aestheic. The reversing of Kantian aesthetic sublime, the incorporation of Hegel’s dialectic toward a radical negation, and Benjamin’s ideas of allegory. The second issue is, of course, mimesis. But in the context of this post, and the shadow of mass culture today, I think it is worth exploring why theatre is so often bad. And in what ways is it bad?

“…thought dominated by the hierarchical, subordinating concept, for which material is always reduced to examples of concepts, becomes increasingly irrational in the loss of the adequacy of form and content.”
Robert Hullot-Kentor

Hullot-Kentor was writing about Adorno and Shoenberg and the essay form in the above quote. What matters here is that this is exactly what happens today in almost all discussions, of both culture and politics. There are always appeals for justification that reside within a narrow conceptual format. I hear people refer to polls, for example, even people who don’t trust polls. It is just reflexive to nod toward the authority of instrumental thinking. So in artworks, the question of autonomy is crucial now. This is why Churchill fails for me. And it is why Handke or Bernhard do not, and why I think there is distinct difference. It is interesting to look at Adorno’s ideas on atonal composition in this light. For the demand for completion, for an end of equilibrium and rest is challenged by Shoenberg’s density. Suddenly the horizontal and vertical models are upset. In one way, one might look at Beckett and Ionesco and Genet and Pinter as operating out of a strategy of density — albeit a density worked through absence. There is no appeal to rational authority in these writers, whose form denies the authority or legitimacy of the status quo. For it is in form that the most reactionary expressions of capitulation occur.

The Water Hen, by  Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, 1972.  Tadeusz Kantor dr. (Cricot2)

The Water Hen, by Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, 1972. Tadeusz Kantor dr. (Cricot2)

Now the question of autonomy touches on the reality of popularity and commodification. The great nightmarish machinery of digesting oppostion that is the hallmark of a society of domination is a very effective machine. I realized during this debate on the last comments thread of the danger of demanding any sort of purity. It doesn’t exist. Bernhard’s posthumous declaration that his work was not to be performed or published in his native Austria was a last gesture of recognition of this impossibility. Still, the institutional creep affects all theatre artists. The durability of Capitalism is undeniable here.

Still, distinctions can be made. The artist who remains too friendly to his or her jailer is suspect. That friendliness is found in subtle form, in the relationship of the artist to the producing entities. To popularity itself. As Jameson says, “the traditional image of the rebel is not merely objectively precarious but perhaps even subjectively illusory.” Innovation in and of itself is just an audition for the producing studio (or to a lesser degree the institutional theatre) to co-opt and put in use as a new *style*. New marketing. Corporate interests eliminate the outsider. There is no outside now, or almost none. This is a discussion of class and of what the artist’s role might be in the great Spectacle today. All of which is not to say that differences do not exist, for they do. It is just that the mediation of finance goes far deeper than it did sixty years ago. Still. I think Jameson might be wrong. And I think he is wrong because he is ignoring class segregation. It is a fetishizing of the idea of rebel, or rather rebel artist. The lone genius etc. But in fact, the political artist, the radical voice is today, still, kept out of the mainstream. Handke isnt done much. Bernhard less frequently than many. And it is interesting to look at Cricot, and Kantor, who brought The Water Hen to Edinburgh in 1972, to the Fringe festival. They performed Witkacy’s absurdist play in Polish. Nobody quite knew what to make of it. But the astute critic, like Michael Billington, recognized something of some significance was taking place. Barber of the Daily Telegraph called it “distressing”. The sound, the memory, the sense memory of radicalism was recognized even in Polish, to an English audience. So, yes, the posture of rebel is often now a style code, but the politically radical, the aesthetically radical, remain anathema.

In fact, it may be that the mediation is so extreme, so hegemonic, that new forms of aesthetic appearance are taking place from within. It may also be that they are not.

Dosso Dossi. early 1500s.

Dosso Dossi. early 1500s.

I want to conclude by finally getting to mimesis. The idea of mimesis as Adorno formulated it (influenced hugely by Benjamin) was as a way out from under the crushing conformity and standardization of mass culture, to trace authentic artworks and to trace the path of their occurrence. He wanted to focus on the concrete, the thing, without allowing its subsumption by the general. The particular was to be dialectically engaged, as I’ve written above. But what does this mean? It means several things, but among the most important things it means, in terms of art, is that spontaneity not be surpressed. The spontaneous fantasies of children are literally beaten out of them. School…the Job, as Burroughs called it…is in the business of extinguishing that fantasy and creativity. That might be a cliche, but it’s true. One of the things children lose, or forget, is the ability to sustain the tension of a seeming contradiction. When children play they allow for things not to make sense. And they experience little anxiety in this tension. I can remember much of my fantasy life as a child. The invented worlds, and the invented names, or the configuration of real names, and invented ones. Voices spoke to each other. They had names. What is interesting, and this was remarked on by Benjamin in several places, the name often didn’t have a form, or a body. The name was enough.

Mimesis on a primary level is simply incorporating the object, the other, into oneself. I am like that. I am that. Immediately the disintegration of the self begins. The negation of what I am like, or what I am. Naming these others is part of the continuing tension set in motion. What I am like has moved, perhaps. Adorno wrote of the opening of Kafka’s Amerika (Stoker); “The novel takes place in an America that has moved while the picture was being taken.” The reference to photography is very meaningful here. It echos something of the destruction of time (per Shierry Weber Nicholson). Kafka’s narrative exposes something of the American inner life, and it does this without conceptual practice. He later says the novel is about the awakening that we are not who we think we are. This is the negation. An extreme negation in a “spaceless space”. Perhaps it is a space without things in it. With only processual agitation. Mimesis, the re-narrating of both story and image, is contour, it is that childlike ability to keep contradictory balls in the air. Names without form. Benjamin famously saw the gesture in Kafka as akin to classical Chinese theatre. Adorno saw it as film. I once thought Adorno was right, but I think Benjamin is right. The dissolution of language, the loss of meaning; this is Caliban as much as it is Kafka. In fact The Tempest remains the almost scriptural evocation of a kind of samsara.

“Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve;
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”

Prospero, act IV The Tempest

Artist unknown, 1640s.

Artist unknown, 1640s.

Mimesis then is that which is the foundational act in creativity, but it is also domination of Nature. I take that into myself. It is hard to arrive at any summary of what Adorno saw as mimesis. But it is worth looking at Erich Auerbach’s famous book of that name, and one thing stood out for me when I read it twenty years ago; and that was the idea of that the voices of the Old Testament were speaking another language from later voices such as Dante of Shakespeare, or later still Tolstoy and Dickens. They were not providing an externalized map of that character’s feelings. They were not directing the listener to plot points. Edward Said wrote about this opening chapter in Auerbach:
“[There is an] externalization of only so much of the phenomena as is necessary for the purpose of the narrative, all else left in obscurity; the decisive points of the narrative alone are emphasized, what lies beneath is nonexistent; time and place are undefined and call for interpretation; thoughts and feelings remain unexpressed, are only suggested by silence and the fragmentary speeches; the whole is permeated with the most unrelieved suspense and directed toward a single goal (and to that extent far more of a unity), remains mysterious and ‘fraught with background'” For me, Adorno’s mimetic action is in that obscurity Said speaks of….the undefined time and place. These are the contours of the imagination. We hear, we invent, we are deaf — but all of it is engaged with, and absorbed.
Gotou Hidihiko

Gotou Hidihiko

Amresh Sinha wrote: “Adorno’s critique of mimesis proposes a method of dialectical reflection which goes against the grain of the positivistic tendency of modern consciousness, which has a tendency to substitute means for ends. “Art’s expression is the anti-thesis of expressing something,” for Adorno, implies that it remains non-identical to a tendency that is related to the exigency of commodity exchange.”

Mimesis is a form of expression, not a Xerox copier in the head.

In a culture in which everything is reified, and commodified — pretty much literally so — the impulse toward an instrumental rating or indexing of experience is intensified. Exchange value. The inner life is calculation now. And such calculation diminishes the mimetic. This is actually obvious. The new Spiderman or whatever summer block buster is a pure calculation. Cha ching. The entire fabric of image and sound is imbued with exchange. Tragedy cant not be marketed. It becomes bathos. Sentimentality is joined at the hip to the grotesque, which is one of the altered futures of Tragedy. Tragedy is a form of expression, and revealing.

Mobutu and the Queen Elizabeth.

Mobutu and the Queen Elizabeth.

So, it strikes me that in theatre there is simply a very narrow tolerance for error, for regressive performance. In film and TV, there is, for reasons worth talking about … in another later post… a much wider tolerance for error. One’s attention isn’t as focused, its a bit more passive. But I suspect there are some fallacies in much theory on media. Most of it seems not to grasp that narrative operates as narrative wherever it is. Now, the harvesting of attention, the labor value of social media users, etc, is certainly germane, but there is still a sort of glossing over how people reflect on the stories before them. How much does that part change? The narrative part I don’t know. But I think it does, even if I think the effects are often exaggerated. And it does matter because a form of expression is stopped short electronically at some point. There are thresholds for mediation by technology.

The mimetic process of reflection, of engagement, is especially complex when narrative is added. I was looking at some photos this week, for reasons I cant remember, of Mobutu. Some with the Queen, others with Prince Bernard of the Netherlands, or with various U.S. government officials. What struck me was that Mobutu can be understood in light of Imperialist foreign policy, neo-colonial thinking, and Capital. But he can also be seen echoing Ionesco, and Shakespeare. Mobutu invented a style of dress that was based on nothing at all African. His abacost was a simulacra African dress. He had a delusional fear of neckties and western suits being worn by associates. His eyeglass frames were from the elite store in Paris that made Le Corbusier’s glasses, and Cary Grant’s. He would charter a Concorde to take shopping trips to Paris. He brutalized his underlings, slept with the wives of all the men close to him. And he was America’s boon ally and close buddy. He looted billions from his country. The US and UK had helped orchestrate the murder of Lumumba, and installed the young the army officer as head of the country. He ruled for decades.

Ambrose Tezenas, photography.

Ambrose Tezenas, photography.

The story of Mobutu is a comic-tragic drama, and his fall, the story of Kabila and Rwanda, and the assassination of Juvénal Habyarimana is a story that echos in our heads. It is haunting in its way, as a continuation of Imperialist pillage and destruction. The aesthetic appropriation of a Mobutu story is a fascinating idea. An opera? Perhaps. But it is in the writers of greatest weight that one can best understand a Mobutu. That too is part of aesthetic resistance.

I end with a fragment from an interview with Heiner Muller in which he tells a brief story:

“And I have another story. At the concentration camp Oranienburg there was an extremely brutal SS soldier. After the war the Russians went to his wife and told her about the things her husband had done in the camp. The wife didn’t understand. He had only done his job, and he had always been a good father to his children, always very loving. The Russians persisted, asking whether nothing at all had seemed odd to her? She considered, then said, “Now and then he would come home with bloody boots.” When she asked him where the blood came from, he would say, “We killed a pig today.” All those years, the woman never knew. She killed her children, set fire to the house, went mad, and ran screaming across the moor. In the concentration camps the low-ranking members of the SS were often farmers’ sons, so they were accustomed to killing animals. All that had to be done was to supply them with the ideology that the prisoners were not humans but animals.”

This returns me to that quote of Hullot-Kentor at the top. “Mimesis is primordial to empathy.”


  1. Exir Kamalabadi says:

    I think here is where Susan Sontag has a crucial — limited, yes, but crucial — place. I don’t just mean On Style and Against Interpretation, but also something like The Death of Tragedy. She says interpretation — which I guess is a similar meaning term to what you term “concept” — is a way to side-step the art, because you can clutch to it as a pacifier so you don’t actually have to EXPERIENCE anything.

  2. Curious to hear more of your take on Stoppard. In a play like R & G are Dead, for example, do you think the wordplay is just “entertainment” for the audience, or the playwright showing off his verbal dexterity, or something else along these lines? Do you think the “well-made-ness” of the play gets in the way — or even makes it impossible for the play to convey deeper meaning?

  3. John Steppling says:

    @george………you know, thats the one play of his I think is actually quite good. When i first read it I was really overwhelmed with how good it was. Im not sure he has ever written anything close to as good as that.

    @exit……..perhaps. let me think on that. But probably yes.

  4. Exir Kamalabadi says:

    John: Perhaps it’s good. I certainly give that it has a sort of affecting-ness and depth that his other plays don’t have. And there is certainly substance there. But also, there’s just so much artifice (which isn’t bad in itself) except that it integrates very poorly with the rest of the material. For example, how do you account for the opening coin-flip, except as a conceit whose sole purpose is to act as a sort of curtain introduction? Or the verbal tennis scene; it has the trappings of a surrealist absurdism, but it’s just clearly a conceit, and their words in that scene might as well be gibberish/ I mean heck the way he wrote the scene, he might as well have had a Brechtian surtitle card that says “R&G spars verbally a little. Please do clap” for all we cared in terms of the scene’s narrative content. And examples like these abound.

    Then on top of that there is a matter of texture, or you could say style. Fact is, the style is just too… I can’t think of the best word… but “fussy”. It’s warmed-over Beckett, but it has none of the directness of Beckett, which shows a kind of squirminess. Soften the blow with a bit of wit, etc etc. In its fussiness (use of excessive detail, verisimultude as stage device not thorough finding the ONE *uninflected* sharp image but through piling up lots of gossipy *personality*) it’s a bit closer to Pirandello… but then unlike say “Six Characters” it isn’t even neurotic. I mean, it is, but it is such a mannered neuroticism that it doesn’t even manage to achieve neurosis.

    So you oddly have a dramatist that on the one hand is too clever for his own good, so that he is often content to put in “clever” scenes without even bothering to make the most perfunctory effort to integrate the material into a unity, surely a sign of intellectual laziness and decadence — and yet he’s also TOO well-integrated so he won’t let any sort of leap or gap exist in his plays. This despite the very conceit that R&G is about two walk-on roles in a world full of gaps. Except the gaps are all filled with static. (I find a comparison with say “Gravity” interesting… “what do you love about space?” says the sensei “The silence…” says the rookie astronaut, as she then proceeds to chatter endlessly for the next 2 hours… now I know “Gravity” is sub-sub-sub-sub-Stoppard because Stoppard actually has some talent and is clever, unlike the absolute charmlessness of the blockbuster… but an interesting comparison about the role of spectacle as filler of gaps, nonetheless)

    Anyhow, there’s Stoppard for you. And that IS his best play. So…. something gives.

  5. john steppling says:

    I dont really disagree. I do think its by far his best play. Where i would rate it beyond saying that, Im not sure. Ive not read it in a long time and i saw only one very mediocre production of it. And that was a long time ago. The point is that his body of work is pretty close to what you say. On the other hand, things like that coin flip are operating in a way that is in keeping with the style he was looking to create. Sometimes you cant fault such things…..not until much later. Writers subsequent work impacts earlier work. Its all part of the history/memory of all art. For me there was something that was evoked in that play, in spite of the cleverness and pandering that felt genuine. And was oddly, or felt oddly like a real investigation of shakespeare. Do i think that now? I dont know.

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