Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Playing God: The Rise of the Actor and the Decline of Tragic Art

The following was recently published at The Partially Examined Life.
In The Birth of TragedyFriedrich Nietzsche argues that, through his protégé Euripides, Socrates had injected into Greek tragedy the seed of questioning doubt that brought an end to the religious animus of drama, the fire that fueled its creation and sustained it. Thus, cold reason killed tragedy. Although he would later modify this view, it remains a powerful and influential polemic in the history of aesthetics.
I would like to propose a variant explanation for the death of drama in the ancient world—one that, while not necessarily throwing out Nietzsche’s metaphysical conception, stands more on the evidence and authority of history, and is thus less complicated than the apparatus of the Apollonian and Dionysian principles Nietzsche used to define tragic motivation. Nevertheless I hope to show that, despite this, Nietzsche might have agreed with at least some of my conclusions.
Tragedy before Euripides was very much an art that raised important questions. Sophocles’s Antigone, which Hegel pointed to as the high point of Greek drama, involved questions concerning the individual conscience and the state, and whether personal values can come before the perceived greater good of the community as a whole. So it would be unfair to say that, at least in this broad view, pre-Euripidean tragedy did not involve itself with questioning. After all, it was this very desire to give meaning to the suffering of life through a religious rite that, as Nietzsche recognizes, brought it into existence.
However, there was indeed a change that came with Euripides. Nietzsche perceived this change as due to the influence of Socrates, whose need to undermine all certainties in turn undermined the very origin of tragedy as a religious ritual, of the universalizing qualities of myth. This may be so, but I would go further in specifying a type of reasoning in particular, that involving the political sphere, that marks the true, and perhaps inevitable, alteration in tragedy’s fabric.
As the last of the great triad of dramatic poets, Euripides was born in an Athens expanding into an empire—born, according to tradition, on the very day of the Battle of Salamis, the great naval action that forever destroyed Persian hopes of conquering Greece. After winning this decisive victory against Persian invasion, Athens was emboldened by her command of the seas to branch out and increase her territory and influence. By the start of the Peloponnesian War, Athens had become such a power in the region that she began to appear a threat to neighboring Sparta. The ensuing period of conflict was reflected in the subject matter of Euripides’s dramas.
Whether one interprets the early plays to be patriotic in content and the latter plays to be antiwar is of little concern in this discussion. What matters is the obvious contemporary political commentary Euripides directs to his audience. Tragedy was no longer the expression of the eternal, but had begun its slide into the earthly and the ephemeral. My purpose here is not so much to pass judgment on Nietzsche's claim that this slide meant the death of Greek tragedy, as it is to draw attention to the new dynamic between the stage and its reflection of the realities of life and the political world.
At around this same time, in the last flowering of the Athenian stage, being a tragic actor had grown into a true profession, with all the weight of ego and pretension that came with it. The Artists of Dionysus was established, a guild that both offered organized support to professionals, and protected established actors' interests by controlling who could and could not perform. The social status of actors attained a level of respectability it would not see again until the modern day, and as we shall see this newly achieved status made possible new forms of abuse.
The ancient world, where mass media did not exist, was a world in thrall to the spoken word. This was especially true of Athens, and later Rome, where great orators not only used their rhetorical skills to win court cases but as an essential tool for political advancement as well. Like the orator, the actor was a trained speaker. Therefore, it is not at all strange that, with the rise of the actor’s social status in Greek society, the actor’s involvement with the political world of the orator began to overlap.
I think this is nowhere better illustrated than by the career of Aeschines, the archrival of Demosthenes and one of the greatest Attic orators, whose career began on the stage before moving to the law courts. Demosthenes himself, the greatest orator of any age by some assessments, was rumored to have been taught elocution by the tragic actor Polus of Aegina, his equal in fame. No shame was involved, as the actor was viewed as the practitioner of a holy religious ritual, and their persons were considered inviolable, allowing them to move through war zones and foreign territory with complete immunity. This high esteem, along with their speaking skills, made them excellent ambassadors, and we have many examples from antiquity of such embassies of actors speaking on behalf of their cities on the most important of diplomatic missions.
The power to draw the masses together and to influence those masses were acceptable and necessary powers of the actor and orator; they  help ensure a democratic society and, for these very reasons, remained a threat to absolute power when democracy was dead. In the wake of King Philip of Macedon’s quest to control the whole of Greece, a quest aided in part by the turncoat actors Aristodemus and Neoptolemus in their capacity as ambassadors, we might contend that among the first liberties to be curtailed was the liberty to dissent. It is telling that, with the ascent of the Hellenistic monarchies that arose upon the death of Alexander the Great, among the changes in literature was the development of New Comedy.
New Comedy represented a break with the outrageous and bawdy style of Aristophanes's Old Comedy, a comedy meant to satirize and poke fun at politicians and other public figures who were perceived by Athenian society to have become too big for their britches. By contrast, New Comedy was tame, domesticated. In fact, it is the very source of the domestic kitchen-sink comedy we still enjoy today. No longer were satire and invective used to lampoon the mighty. Instead, stock character types with broad universal appeal and no political commentary became the order of the day.
For tragedy, this fate was suffered twice over. It could no longer be allowed to address the contemporary but, in addition, with the rise of the actor, content was no longer important. Whatever serviced the actor’s needs was now paramount. What was more important were stories pleasing to a mass audience, subject matter that was easily understood outside the social and political context of Athens and, above all, roles that gave the actors the best opportunity to display their versatility.
Such an example we find in another treatment of the myth of Antigone, this time by the very popular Astydamas the Younger. Much of Sophocles's plot remains but, instead of the bleak ending of the original that raised uncomfortable questions for the audience to answer for themselves, we have the introduction of a deus ex machina in the form of Heracles to bring the play to a less unsettling conclusion. Drama, once the showcase of free speech and arresting ideas, had become merely the vehicle for the actor, a spectacle of inoffensive and unenlightening mass entertainment.
At this point the reader may be led to protest at the perceived illogic of such a proposition. Did not drama, including tragedy, revive at the start of the Renaissance? And did not Europe see a continuous succession of great dramatists from Shakespeare to Ibsen? This is so, and it would be ridiculous to contend that King Lear or Racine’s Phaedra were not tragedies in the highest sense. No, again it is the actor upon whom I wish to focus—the political context that he inhabits and how this pattern affects drama today.
We have already seen the Greek stage devolve into something less than divine with the fall of the Athenian empire and then the development of the Hellenistic monarchies. With the rise of the Roman Empire, this pattern becomes even more pronounced. It is well known that Roman theater abjured tragedy in preference to comedies derived from the Greek model of Menander. But even this rather sophisticated dramatic writing paled in terms of popularity with the pantomime.
A truly Roman art, pantomime evolved from having limited speaking and singing to a totally wordless presentation. This was the very best form of acting in an authoritarian society. Unlike the Greeks, Roman actors were held in contempt at the very bottom of the social hierarchy. Nevertheless, their popularity with the crowd and their symbolic quality as signals of a patron’s wealth and pretensions to Greek culture gained them entry to the very highest perches of imperial power, even as friends and advisors to the Emperor himself (Mnester under Caligula then Claudius, and Paris under Domitian representing some of their greatest excesses).
With the fall of Rome in the West and the growing adoption of Christianity, the reputation and status of the actor reached its lowest point. Even as drama revived with the stirrings of the Renaissance, acting as a profession was looked upon with disdain and suspicion. Until the nineteenth century, the word actor was a near-synonym of prostitute and clown. How far from being the votaries of Dionysus they had fallen!
This Christian-inspired view kept actors out of high places in the intervening centuries, royal actress mistresses notwithstanding. It could almost be said that between the ages of Nero and Reagan the actor stood apart. With the twentieth century, however, increasing secularization and the growing popularity of film began to change this view. Once more the actor had become a “star,” and the cult of celebrity has almost come to take the role once played by religion, filling the void left over by the death of God.
It is here that we look back to Nietzsche and his own comments upon the death of tragic art:
A people which takes as its point of departure the absolute validity of the political instincts will just as necessarily end up following a path of extreme secularization, whose greatest but also most terrifying expression is the Roman imperium. Situated between India and Rome and forced to make a seductive choice, the Greeks managed to invent with classical purity an additional third form, admittedly not one they used personally for long, but for that very reason they achieved immortality. For that the favorites of the gods die young holds true in all things, but it is just as certain that they then enjoy eternal life with the gods. One should not ask of the noblest thing of all that it have the toughness and durability of leather; stout perseverance, as is typical for example of the Roman national drive, is in all probability not one of the necessary predicates of perfection. But when we ask which remedy enabled the Greeks in their period of greatness, at the time of the extraordinary strength of their Dionysian and political drives, to avoid exhausting themselves either in ecstatic brooding or in a consuming pursuit of global power and prestige, and to achieve rather that glorious mixture resembling a noble wine, which both inflames and induces contemplation on the part of the drinker, then we must remember the tremendous power of tragedy which stimulates, purifies, and discharges the whole life of the people; whose highest value we only sense when it draws near us, as in the case of the Greeks, as the epitome of all prophylactic healing powers, as the mediator which holds sway over the strongest and in themselves most disastrous characteristics of the people. (The Birth of Tragedy, trans., Douglas Smith)
What should we take from this? At least in part, it would seem to suggest that Nietzsche agrees that there was a political component in tragedy's demise. Further, it is telling that he singles out secularization as a factor.
This is not to say that a return to religion is enough or even can revive tragedy. On the contrary, as we have already demonstrated, religion in the form of Christianity witnessed a series of great playwrights. Rather, it is this turning away from the author in preference to the actor, in conjunction with the rise of imperial aspirations and authoritarian governance, as well as the death of faith and its comforting illusions that make for such a noxious mixture. Nietzsche confirms this role for religion in tragedy's birth when he writes:
I feel myself compelled to the metaphysical assumption that the truly existent primal unity, eternally suffering and contradictory, also needs the rapturous vision, the pleasurable illusion, for its continuous redemption. (The Birth of Tragedy, trans. Walter Kaufmann)
The hopes of the worldly rather than the otherworldly begin to intrude; the concerns of the moment, replacing the contemplation of the eternal, render the tragic into mere melodrama.
With this, we begin to see the true nature of things. The actor, symbol of free speech, ironically becomes just another mouthpiece of power; the troublesome questioning poet is shouted down—at best. The twentieth century is abundant in examples of the worst that is possible. Tragic art must inevitably die anywhere the performer is given precedence over the creator, and this precedence is almost always initiated where the factors cited above press back against the desires of unfettered creation.
For the actor does not create, but only interprets what another has made, as a musician does with a composer’s score. For the actor, the content of what is acted is never so important as how it is acted. The words are merely a vehicle for the actor’s performance, a demonstration of his or her versatility. Consequently, any opportunity to appear before an audience is acceptable regardless of context or ethical implication. So long as the star is allowed to shine, damn the consequences. A similar observation was made by T. S. Eliot in his essay "The Possibility of a Poetic Drama":
A struggle, more or less unconscious, between the creator and the interpreter is almost inevitable. The interest of a performer is almost certain to be centered in himself: a very slight acquaintance with actors and musicians will testify. The performer is interested not in form but in opportunities for virtuosity or in the communication of his “‘personality’”; the formlessness, the lack of intellectual clarity and distinction in modern music, the great physical stamina and physical training which it often requires, are perhaps signs of the triumph of the performer. The consummation of the triumph of the actor over the play is perhaps the productions of the Guitry.
Seen in this light, the death of tragedy is no longer merely of academic interest, but a sign that of something that the average individual should heed. More than anything, art—a phenomenon that is an inescapable part of every person’s life, and, one might argue, the crowning glory of our species—should not be viewed so casually as mere passive entertainment.
The drama began as an act of religious observance in honor of the god Dionysus and, through the experiment of democracy, became the supreme art form of an age, the actor being but a mere officiant. It should alarm us, then, when through some perverse dialectic the actor becomes the focus and not what is enacted. The actor, once a servant of a god, has now become a god; a miraculous blasphemy for our age that has perhaps already given us reason to repent.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Idealism By Other Means

People of privilege will always risk their complete destruction rather than surrender any material part of their advantage. Intellectual myopia, often called stupidity, is no doubt a reason.” — John Kenneth Galbraith
It is a well-known proverb that history is written by the victors and one that has been thoroughly disproved by the survival of the accounts of Native Americans, the narratives of slaves, and the archives bursting with the atrocities of colonialism. Nevertheless, at the moment the crime was becoming merely a record, the victors were righteous and their actions justified and sanctified for the masses. And although today the victims have been vindicated, they still remain cold and dead. To cite another proverb: “Justice delayed is justice denied.”
Although progressives have jettisoned many of the values of the past, including a primitive authoritarian form of religion, they still retain that religion’s residue of pity. And, out of pity of the suffering violence can inflict, have in light of the bloodshed of the French and Russian revolutions, cast all thought of armed revolt to the winds. Such hesitation is rarely a virtue and, as we may see, could potentially cause even greater suffering to come through inaction.
And yet, such action is unlikely to spring from the Left. If the revolutions of France under the Bourbons and Russia under the Romanovs had any great advantages, there were at least two: Populations with nothing left to lose and, well-defined ideologies that made sense to their public’s as much as to their pundits.
In America, these conditions are reversed. Although the Left has an ideology, it is a fractured one. Liberalism in our nation is founded upon a pluralism that, in its constant desire for inclusiveness, must always second-guess its self and question the justice of its action’s. Such a state of self-doubt is inimical to action. The Bolsheviks and the Jacobin’s had a unifying faith, a clearly defined path, the American Left has no such certainties. With this lack of direction the Left are doubly prey to the effects of one of Liberalism’s most crippling characteristics — -idealism. For the left, idealism has many of the qualities of religion in that the rosy optimism of the idealist is always in constant expectation of a better tomorrow. Just as many liberals ignored the possibility of a Trump presidency because it was too terrible to believe possible, so the liberal idealist, like the early Christians, tacitly ignore the hard realities of this world for the kingdom of Heaven to come.
However, perhaps the most important reason revolutionary change is unlikely to arrive in any form from the Left, at least in its current state of disunity, is due to class. It is no secret that in The United States the majority of the population who count themselves as Left-leaning also tend to be the most well educated, and in turn, more affluent relatively than most on the Right. This economic reality may be a hurdle too high to overcome, as this Bourgeois Left has too much to lose, in terms of both middle-class comforts and professional advancement to risk blood and treasure to defend abstract ideals in the face of harsh reality. All of which paints a gloomy picture for the preservation of Liberal values and the continuation of hard-won social victories.
The election of Trump, the threat of Global Warming, the invasion of Iraq, all demonstrate that objectivity and facts are no longer possible. You cannot reason with people who have dispensed with reason.
It is too often forgotten, in what Gore Vidal called The United States of Amnesia that, despite years of struggle by abolitionists, it required a bloody civil war to end the institution of slavery. If the institution of our corporate oligarchy is to be removed, why do we expect it will take anything less?

Saturday, January 07, 2017

The Risks of Authenticity

“He who thinks great thoughts often makes great errors.”
---Martin Heidegger

Since the publication of the Black Notebooks in 2014, the question of Martin Heidegger’s
anti-Semitism, his association with National Socialism and the influence of both upon his thought
have been given renewed impetus. From unpublished papers and other sources, we have a better
understanding today of how Heidegger viewed the Nazis and what he expected of them. But the
reasons for his post-war silence, or near silence, on his involvement, have been harder to discern.
If the man himself would not speak perhaps his philosophy might be more forthcoming.

It is, of course, no secret that Heidegger’s politics were deeply conservative. In large part, this
was almost certainly inspired by his view of the essential autochthony of the German people, that
identity is something grounded in a homeland. Autochthony means literally “ people sprung from
Earth itself”, and Heidegger placed great importance on this concept as he argued that a proper
home was necessary, in which Being could fulfill its potential. With this in mind, it is much
easier to grasp what attracted Heidegger to National Socialism at its inception. And indeed,
Heidegger was there on the ground floor, becoming a party member as early as 1933, well before
the ultimate direction party policy would take could be known. But what Heidegger did know at
the time was that this was a political party and a leader which supported a strong image of the
fatherland and national unity, qualities, as I said, of no small importance in his thinking.

Perhaps of even greater importance for gaining insight into the psychology of his motivation,
however, is Heidegger’s concept of authenticity. Although authenticity is the common
translation used, and the one adopted by Sartre and others, the actual German Eigentlickheit is
more literally “ownedness”, implying that we own what we are and what we do. On the road to
becoming our authentic selves, there is always the risk along the way of surrendering to the
“dictatorship of the They”. The “They”, of course, are the majority of individuals who have
yielded their task of fulfilling their potential to live inauthentic lives. Why would one wish to
remain inauthentic and unfulfilled? For Heidegger, a principal reason is comfort, and it is here
he echoes Nietzsche and the Last Man when he writes of Dasein, or the context of the self,
becoming absorbed “into the being of ‘The Others’”. We most often surrender our own true self
to meet the expectations of others. In return, we can relax from the struggles of living
authentically and flow with the warm predictable current of the conformity of the “Them.”

The They, in setting the standards for how we live, determining for us what we wear, what we
find funny what sad, etc., proscribe the limits of our being, our possibilities. University culture
could be characterized then as much as now as largely politically liberal in outlook and
sympathy, especially after the rise of the Weimar Republic. Heidegger, it was assumed, would
follow his colleagues in dissent of Hitler’s rise. This taken for granted attitude perhaps helps
explain in part the utter shock his declared support for the new regime elicited in fellow faculty
and associates. But, in terms of Heidegger’s thought described above, many should have been
less surprised. This is not to say that Heidegger’s philosophy was somehow “Nazistic” to its
core, as some have suggested, but rather it is that that very assumption he would naturally
acquiesce to what he may have interpreted as the forced opinion of the dictatorship of the They,
perhaps helped influence his decisions. Certainly, it is in alignment with his conception of

Seeing possibilities and taking decisive action, are also characteristics Heidegger associates with
the authentic self. His support of the National Socialists so early in their rise is certainly a
decisive act. And his avoidance too of a clear and direct apology after the war is also consistent,
it is what the They demanded and thus, he could not give and at the same time not surrender
something of himself, however cold this might appear to others. For ultimately, for Heidegger,
there can never be an escape from the social world, a world that is forever attempting to drag us
away from ourselves. Because of this constant assault of the They we are repeatedly taking a
stand, Verstehen, on who we are against the questioning of our identity, our very being. This, of
course, does not excuse his behavior but then, what we think would have mattered little to
Heidegger, an indifference that perhaps the release of the Black Notebooks was meant to reflect.
All of us have at some time been guilty of something, or at least felt guilty. And when that guilt
is discovered or acknowledged it can be used as a weapon against us. Perhaps it was the desire
to soften the blows of that weapon against his Dasein that led to Heidegger’s deflated and
depersonalized apology. It was a means of saving face, and saving himself.

If we remember the Letter on Humanism, Heidegger makes plain that he did not accept
Humanism’s metaphysics of a shared essence. People are subjective but Being itself is objective,
above the merely human which is forever tied to history and custom. The world and its value’s
change, but Being does not. Is it possible that, in waiting so long to publish these final thoughts,
Heidegger was taking a gamble that the world to which they would be introduced would be one
more receptive to its message? If the furor after their release is any indication, it is a gamble that
he clearly miscalculated. But, in gambling, as in every other choice we make, there is always a
risk. And, whatever you may think of the man and the choice of his political allegiances, Heidegger was clearly a thinker not afraid to risk it all.