“Each of us is all the sums he has not counted: subtract us into
nakedness and night again, and you shall see begin in Crete four
thousand years ago the love that ended yesterday in Texas.”
— Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward Angel
The men we call “Shakespeare” are, we are told, always relevant. That is, the plays are always about what is constant: Ambition, lust, jealousy, secrecy, and torments both personal, familial and social.
Soon after Bush IIs folly in Babylon, the polemicist director, Oliver Stone, coughed up a bloated reworking of Alexander the Great which, in the always make two corner of the universe owned by Hollywood, was followed (or perhaps proceeded – who remembers) by Troy. Both were morbidly obese in the manner of blow-up doll epics that want to bludgeon you into submission through a combination of imitation spectacle and duration, with an effect similar to a cocktail of ground up Adderall, visual heroin and a gallon of Coffee. The twitching, spastic zombie audience, suffering from periodic fits of shrieking followed by short comas, is thus rendered ideal for receiving subtle historical lessons delivered from the blunt end of a marketing howitzer.
Amid the wreckage of this moment, this stab at relevance, this gesture of defiance in the face of the new imperium (as if the Colossus of Rhodes had been lit up with a neon sign that said DRINK PEPSI), there lingered an uncomfortable question.
If ancient tales and the increasingly antique shenanigans of the Tudor aristocracy, are always on point, if you can more or less successfully transport Ulysses, Troy and boy kings to a ranch in Texas, space stations full of Bejorans and Klingons, if you can dress up existentially tormented Danish princes as executives on Wall Street, or place senile kings in an amusement park, then shouldn’t we ask: does anything every change?
Lost amid the rhetorical target practice of the knuckle dragging, mouth breathing reactionary right wing assault on what it mistakenly calls “Postmodernism” is that Second Phase Postmodernism* took as its primary target, the Modernist assault on Christianity’s assault on Paganism’s central belief in the cyclical nature of History. In other words, Pynchon disagrees with Joyce, who disagrees with Aquinas, who disagrees with Heraclitus, who inspires Joyce.
In placing the Odyssey in Dublin, in the early 20th century, Joyce had in mind, amid a million other ideas, that the idea that History moved with Jesuitical precision from now to the future, and the end of History was, demonstrably false. Instead, he posited that the ancient mind had been closer to the truth when it asserted a narrative system, a faith, in the idea that, as another schismatic high priest of Modernity had it, the past aint even hardly past. In fact, it is summed up by yet another irritatingly smart Modernist who said: There is no such thing as the future; no such thing as the present, only the past happening over and over again right now.
Hamlet, among a cavalcade of other characters, makes a guest appearances in Joyce’s reworking of the old myth and, we are tasked with excavating the long ago as a prism through which the present is contextualized. What’s old, is new again, because, what’s past is present and these things are constant.
This presents a dilemma which of course goes undiscussed.
For the liberal mind, if not some on what we loosely call the left, or the conservatives who toil in the shadow of Harold Bloom, the Humanities are both a refuge and a cudgel with which one beats, and beats again, and again beats, the barbarians who speak in terms that claim book leanr’n is not only unnecessary, it is a dead weight that interferes with their innate moral certainty. They look into a man’s eyes and know his soul. They are not weighed down with effete, vaguely European ideas about sophistication and so on. But when rhetorically necessary they’ll trot out some “Shakespeare” or inevitably Yeats generally and The Second Coming specifically and even more specifically “…things fall apart…the center cannot hold…” as if not only did he only write that one poem, it is the only poem ever written and for which they can find a contemporary political use.
But both the liberal and the conservative are here operating within a confined if not cloistered precinct that they refuse to acknowledge. Both of course are devotees of the religion of Progress – either fueled by Christian or Enlightenment certainty in the ultimate perfectibility of the Human condition – ending in either a metaphysical assent to the after life, or a scientifically precise end to suffering in a perfected social order.
That both sound eerily like the more basic, if not banal, iterations of communism and fascism, with their faith in the End of History is an irony to which we will return another time.
What interests us here though is the idea that, if “Shakespeare” is always relevant, if one can always learn something of value about contemporary behavior from ancient dusty swords and chariots, if (in another example) Arthur, Lancelot and Mordred, are all always on point, then by definition, it means nothing has or ever will change. Or, one must imagine a point when all of that will fade into dust as it becomes so alien, so foreign, as to be useless.
For the liberal this poses the acute if not terminal dilemma that culture, qua culture, has a sell by date, which of course undermines the entirety of the Enlightenment project as, instead of a universal humanizing truth, there is a universal dehumanizing truth waiting like a moral black hole into which everything worthwhile will enter, and never leave.
For the conservative the dilemma is similar if yet also starkly different in that victory would render their sense of identity as struggle irrelevant (as if their definition of purgatory was listening to Lyn Cheney recite Dover Beach, until the end of time). Victory in this case would mean a null state more similar to a communism of the soul that would, one imagines, give the average National Review subscriber a profound case of the jitters and shakes. After all, if the liberals were to vanish in some twisted ersatz or ad hoc edition of the End of Days, there would be no one left to rail against and then what? To put a finer point on it, it means that the single most important component to a conservative’s identity is not a copy of the complete works of Adam Smith, but the financial viability of The New Yorker.
Of course this goes a long way towards explaining the consistent habit among both “intellectuals” of whatever political tribe, and lay readers, of defanging the more brutal qualities of Art. If, there is never any ending to the truths that comprise the DNA of Art, if Hamlet is forever, if the White Whale is eternal, if Anna K. is always on her way to that last train, then we are brought to the edge of an abyss. But that metaphor must be adjusted as abyss qua abyss suggests an end – a fall into a final end but in this case it is an abyss that is itself an endless repetition.
Assorted isims – capitalism, communism, fascism – all operate on a premise that Art is nothing more than a tool – it is either propaganda or product. Its purpose is utilitarian and any sparks that it shoots off, any brush fires of the soul that it sparks are the fault of either the deviant artists or the faltering consumer or foot soldier. Either way, History with its terminus, is the victor and the deviant is to be eliminated.
In the narrative system of Art as product, as marketing tool, all moral quandaries are subsumed within the wider narrative system of commercial exchange. After all, tickets to a Broadway production of Waiting for Godot or Death of a Salesman are expensive and once the final curtain draws down, the lights come up and one must go home.
This of course is the vast distance we have traveled from the Dionysian festival to the Great White Way. Antonin Artaud was born two thousand years too late. His theater of confrontation was an act of subversion and had to be declared “insane” so that he could be locked up and pumped full of drugs. Processions of drunk, mask wearing men, hurling insults and dancing around massive carved phalluses is not the sort of thing one does in the theater district. Off Broadway, sure but, even then, despite its claims to be shocking, it is contained within the confines of exchange – Cha Ching! Now go home.
For the fascist, or the more overtly fascist, or the left wing tyranny of purity, the details may be different but the results are the same. It is no accident that amid the carnival of competing utopian dreams in 19th century Europe a consistent detail in the dreamscape of ideal future perfected communities, Art had gone missing.** Sexual liberation, small and polite constabularies, food for everyone and a general sense of contentment were uniform but, so was the absence of literature or painting except, for the complete works of Rousseau, or some other fevered dreamer operating with a sense of certainty that time’s arrow had taken onboard the soul of the world and would, inevitably reach its target. Once there, what would be the point of an Art that took as its central theme the map of the soul that had as its coordinates of meaning, the idea that nothing changes.
This of course leaves a great many people in a logical cul de sac. To say progress is morally justified if not historically certain, explodes the spine of Art. To adhere to the truth of Art is then to explode the idea that progress is morally justified if not historically certain.
The answer of course is to capture Art and sell Art with essentially the same method one uses to sell everything else – religion, faith, toothpaste, war.
Stripped of its ferocity, its self immolating and subversion of an otherwise placid social order, Art becomes art Inc. and the consumer enters the theater, or reads a novel, or goes to a museum or gallery, with the same attention one uses for any other commercial exchange. The public intellectual becomes a kind of circus clown, and the serious actor, or director as auteur, spills out of the too small car at the circus except the circus is transformed into a chat show with its template of prefabricated rituals, all designed to occupy the space between commercials. Periodically (though with far less frequency then before) an argument breaks out (like a virus that has escaped a secure laboratory) but the quarrel, the rage, is transformed into a spectacle, declared absurd, minor, and of no importance and then, is transformed again into a kind of postmodern bear baiting and then, packed off into the dead dusty pages of obscure academic or literary journals.
Of course this in turn represents and reveals the hidden anxiety stemming from the lingering fear that, we exist in a state of entropy. Like an addict taking increasingly bigger hits to achieve increasingly smaller results, the consumer, the religious apostles, the foot soldiers of Revolution, all betray a fear, a profound case of the heebee jeebees of the soul, in which their doubt is turned outward and the more uncertain they become the more ferocious they are in their expressions of belief in the rightness of their cause.
Believe more, buy more, demand more, and all of it, echoes, ironically with the clanging harmonies of irony – that everything repeats, including the sense of repetition.
Hamlet in space.
Hamlet on Broadway.
Ulysses on his way home, misses the bus, and scans the street for a taxi.
Dinner is waiting and the hour is growing late.
Tomorrow he has to do it all over again.
*We loosely posit First Phase Postmodernism as being from van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, with its mirror trick, through Velasquez’ references to van Eyck, in Las Meninas, Cervantes and his Don Quixote who is a character within his own novel, and “Shakespeare” and Kyd, with their plays within plays, ending with Mark Twain making himself a character in Huck Finn. Second Phase PM would then be the era of say, roughly, the early 20th century – and here feel free to make your own list – running from, Cubism to the French New Wave.
Following all of that you have the generation of Pynchon, Gaddis, et al, rounding on what came before and chewing it up, and spitting it out.
**Consider Etienne Cabet’s novel, Voyage en Icarie (The Voyage of Icarus) as a representative of the genre (Emphasis added). “Power is exercised in this utopian society by a collegial executive…family life is serene, happy, even joyful, and all citizens enjoy freedom of religious worship, with the majority subscribing to a civil religion with no idols or rituals…There are no cafes or gambling houses, and a nightly curfew is observed between 10p.m. and 5 a.m. Art is controlled by the state and is characterized by chastity and (just like Mercier’s utopia***) by social utility.”
***Another depiction of a similar utopia where, “Art” is controlled by the state.
The proceeding is from, How the French Think, an Affectionate Portrait of an Intellectual People, by Sudhir Hazareesingh.