Monday, July 16, 2012

MACBETH AND US



As an indication of how far behind I am in my reading, I just came across a July 17, 2008 review by Stephen Greenblatt of a then-current staging of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

The playwright flattens – using Greenblatt’s acute descriptor – the world of the play. Rather than a multi-Planar world (a Plane of Existence beyond what we can see), the playwright posits a mono-Planar world (all of reality stuffed, squashed, and flattened into this single Plane of Existence that humans can see and taste and touch ‘on gross examination’ – as the doctors would say).

Thus in place of the morally-charged heights and depths of the multi-Planar universe, there are merely the actualities (not to say ‘realities’) that present themselves to human ‘on gross examination’.

So politically, Macbeth and his wife preside over what is clearly a Stalinist type of government (the authority of which government they have usurped by murdering the true king, Duncan, who was making a royal visit to the castle of Macbeth, his most accomplished military thane).  Thus evil – or Evil – is reduced in this staging to a merely this-worldly political expression of what in classical Western thought (and Shakespeare’s own conception of things) would be seen as a manifestation of some profoundly human and/or divine derangement and in classical Christian thought would be seen as an expression of Original Sinfulness.*

Individually, this mono-Planar frame of understanding reduces the stunning and shocking Evil of Macbeth and his wife Lady Macbeth to merely a diagnostic presentation of the psychological derangement that comes to define them as a result of their crime: Macbeth is ‘shallow’ and ‘willfully stupid’, refusing either to look into his own now-lethally damaged depths or to consider the post-crime consequences of his act in relation to judgment by any Higher Plane or Law.

This is of itself a deeply useful and accurate insight. In the romanticization of criminality following such films as Bonny and Clyde (1967) and The Godfather (1972), the interior life of persons given over to a pervasively and violently sinful and illegal life was popularly imagined to be vibrant and liberated (Bonny and Clyde, whose only ‘problem’ was that the police caught up with them and nastily ambushed them) or mature and in some way noble (Don Vito as leader and all his nobly loyal henchmen and lieutenants; the Don’s only problem being that his impulsive son and ‘dishonorable’ fellow-mobsters witlessly undermine or treacherously attack him).

Whereas in reality, the day-to-day interactions of such persons reflect a soul-numbing and brute, lumpish shallowness that becomes so self-defining that it assumes a frighteningly sinister reality of its own, which is then reinforced by the observer’s awareness that these passively repellent humans, when they do take action, act in the most brutal and violent ways.

The problem isn’t the ‘crime’ and the breaking of the law, but rather only the oppressive and unsportsmanlike conventionality of the police in chasing you; and ‘sin’ doesn’t even enter into the eidesis of these films, into the imagined-world of the films and their scripts. And it’s clear that you can be noble and ‘mature’ even when running a criminal empire as your life’s work; and that conventionality is just so white-bread boring and ‘shallow’, and your only big problem is other criminals who aren’t as noble as you and conventional types (like cops) who don’t stay bought.

These are messages that could not and cannot but appeal to the Boomery excitements and illuminations of those times, now forty and more Biblical years ago: you can be utterly ‘un-conventional’ (one might today say ‘transgressive’) and yet thereby achieve a more vivid life and self than the white-bread drones who – in standard Western movies – were the merely passive and cattle-like ‘townsfolk’ whose very bovine daily life seemed to invite the healing-exciting ministrations of the violently unconventional and transgressive bad-guys just to shake them out of their torpor and lethargy. Yah.

Better to be excitingly criminal, unconventional and transgressive than to embrace the (apparent) drudgery of building, conducting, and sustaining a productive individual, family, and communal life. Wheeeeee!

That has worked so well for Us.

I think that the Boomers suffered not only from the usual delusions of youthiness – with its simplistic, shallow, excitable and impatient perturbations, but also from the fact that a) their own parents were pretty much settled into productive peace and quiet in the postwar 1940s and 1950s after the crushing and terrifying Depression-1930s and strenuously demanding wartime-1940s,  and yet those same parents b) wanted to ‘give’ their kids all the abundance and ‘freedom’ they themselves did not experience in those hard hard years.

And c) there were just so many Boomers that they sort of got the idea that it was a kid’s-world and existence to begin with – so that if you were ‘over 30’ then you really didn’t know much about ‘life’ at all and it was all only going to get worse as your hair went gray and you put on a few pounds. ‘Experience’ belonged to the young, and all that increasing age brought was less-experience and more ‘conventionality’.

Which – by the by – fed right into JFK’s initial electoral problem: how to counter the ‘maturity and experience’ objection to the candidate, compared with the then-powerful image of Ike’s presidency, and JFK’s older competitors – Democratic and Republican – for the job. The Answer: frame the competition as ‘old and tired and worn-out’ and yourself as ‘fresh and young and vibrant’ (and let Jackie dazzle those multitudes who were susceptible to mere bedazzlement, including the greedy but oh-so-susceptible TV and newsreel cameras with their new-found capacity to film all the dresses and jewels and hats in the garishly bright hues of ‘living color’ … and present it all as ‘news’).

And, Greenblatt neatly points out, Malcolm  – the murdered king’s avenging son – offers no better hope for the future under his reign than an ongoing official vengeance against all those who acquiesced or collaborated in Macbeth’s brief, murder-gotten administration.

There is no hope even in this morally-flattened world. Politically – and to my mind marvelously – Greenblatt likens this lethal no-exit conundrum to the political problem of Stalinism: if you were a Soviet citizen (with the mere pittance of sham-rights accorded to you by that monstrous government) looking up at that rock-like gaggle of monsters standing around Stalin on the reviewing stand atop Lenin’s Tomb in Red Square as the vast military and cadre parade went by, you might well ask yourself: what good would it be to get rid of the Primary Monster, since all that would happen is his replacement by one of that gaggle of Associate Monsters?

This political hopelessness acutely mirrors – but in the modern staging of the play doesn’t reveal – the profoundly existential human hopelessness that always clouds and chokes the merely mono-Planar vision of human existence: no matter where you turn on the flat two-dimensional surface of this human mono-Plane, you are still going to run into the same Evil-bleared and Sin-smeared reality, and only the uniform or suit or dress is going to change. There is – deep down – a hopelessness to the mono-Plane because humans can never on their own escape from Sin.

How can they? Sin is somehow seated in each human and thus cumulatively in the entire species. It is this profoundly deranging if mysterious reality that forever stymies purely mono-Planar efforts to ‘get free’ and break into the broad sunlit uplands of a humanity liberated into its own genuineness, freed from its own ‘inferior’ and worst possibilities.

Even the example of Communism is instructive: Marx ignored Sin, re-defining it in a spectacularly thorough mono-Planar materialistic way as merely being ‘economic injustice’ – and then that profound and profoundly inaccurate and deceptive misstep was compounded by Lenin’s unshakable demand that if all political power were placed without question in the hands of the government and its elite vanguard cadres, then a defect-less human existence was guaranteed to be the result. More or less.

And how did that work out? (Yes, there were then and there are now those who said and say of the Communist gambit what is said by some of the Iraq invasion: a good Idea, but alas poorly executed and we’ll do it right the next time. Should there ever even be a ‘next time’ for such a blood-soaked outrage?)

And what then to do with yourself and your ‘self’ and your life in the midst of such political (and existential) mono-Planar hopelessness?

“Munch” and have-sex, as Lady Macbeth counsels her terrified husband as he beholds in front of him, in the dark kitchen of the palace, a bloody-dagger hanging in the air, pointing at him. Because, she advises of the dagger, “there is no such thing”. So … it goes away if you just ignore it because it’s all just a construct of your mind?

But choosing the Knife is instantly its own punishment. The option of the unconventional (you could say profoundly  ‘un-natural’, from a Christian point of view – although it is currently not-Correct) and the transgressive, of the ‘short-cut’ that will get you what you want by getting-around or breaking-through or breaking-down all of the ‘conventional’ moral and legal obstructions to your burning and too-coddled desire is all you need to choose. Your choice is the only reality because your choice makes reality. (And thus the consumerist turkey comes home to roost with a time-bomb in its weak beak.)

And once you have done that you will have your desire.

But – as any genuine adult would know – that isn’t all there is to it. Every action generates consequences, and you should never contemplate an action until you have analyzed its possible or probable consequences and calculated whether you will be willing or able to pay the price.

But then – I would say – it is a savage irony (but hardly surprising and certainly not unforeseeable) that Americans now take a sort of limitless-credit approach to costs and consequences: if there is a cost to an action or course of action that you (witlessly and negligently) hadn’t considered, just ‘put it on the card’ and no harm done.

Yah.

In Iraq and the Middle East, and in all the other venues where the country is now vigorously (if quietly) building up ‘lily-pad’ bases**, the government will just ‘put it on the card’ – and since the government is its own credit-issuer, then it can never run out of cash and credit. Neat! In domestic politics, keep the deliberately-erected client-Identities and their demographics well-lubricated with cash and entitlements by ‘putting it on the card’. And, but of course, since the Very Rich individuals and the mega-corporations  and banksters are now the prime remaining repositories and generators of ‘wealth’ (however the term is now defined), then they automatically have all the ‘credit’ they need for their ‘cards’.  Can you hear the echo of a great big Wheeeeee from inside the Beltway? A successful ‘strategizing’ of the Problem!

To me Our situation resembles residents of Berlin in the late-spring of 1945: still listening to Goebbels’s optimistic and upbeat insistence on the radio (as if it were 1939 or 1940 all over again) while, outside the now-cracked or shattered windows, you can hear the intensifying thump of Soviet artillery as The Other Shoe tramps closer and closer (since the ‘Eastern front’ is now only a few hours’ bumpy motorcycle ride from the ‘Western front’).

Morally, then, the country is also running out of its credit-limit on ‘the card’. And the Bank or Card-Issuer is headquartered in that Higher Plane of the multi-Plane (although with branch offices and agents liberally situated throughout the mono-Plane and never very far away at all).

The solution to that Problem is to pooh-pooh the existence of the multi-Plane and insist that the Beltway has it all under control. Don’t believe your lying ears when you hear those whump-whumps in the near-distance; believe the radio and the optimistic insistence that your government has it all under control. Oh, and that you will soon be called upon for even greater sacrifices, such as sending the old men and boys out for a quick walk to the Front (and an even shorter term of living service once they get there) and if you are staying at home, be ready to lock your door in a sassy in-your-face gesture of defiance to the Consequence that approaches. Oh, and lock your windows – even if they no longer have panes … gestures are very important.

Such a plan. Such marvelous strategy.

But don’t you dare allow yourself to think that it won’t work and that everything won’t be miraculously turned-around and it will be The Glorious Good Old Days all over again very soon. Don’t you dare.

It’s all a matter of how you ‘frame’ it and how you ‘spin the Narrative’, really. Every bit of reality is ‘socially constructed’ and so all you have to do to change ‘reality’ (and Reality?) is to change your ‘construction’ of it – and then your attitude will change and you’ll feel better (some anti-depressants and hard liquor might also help, or ‘munching’ a sammitch or two or a quick 'liberating' hook-up) and that’s all there is to it, really.

Ja! Da! Yah.

After all, “fair is foul and foul is fair, hover through the fog and filthy air” – as the marvelously monnikered Weird Sisters declare.

Although so profoundly deranged a sense of reality – especially moral reality and Reality – cannot but result in a blindness that sends you staggering and blundering sightlessly through actualities that demand immediate reconsideration and re-formation on the deepest levels of your life and the nation’s life.

But the entire Game-plan of the past forty Biblical years has precisely been to erase any such awareness of blindness; what, after all, is Truth? – as one Roman governor once put it from the secure perch of his official Beltway-type Chair of Judgment.

Since everybody has such different ideas of Truth, and since Reality is really just a ‘construct’ anyway, then there can’t be any Truth or Reality in the first place, except what we have “in our poor power” to make it. So stop thinking about Truths and Reality and just do some creative-imagining of “fresh vocabularies” to construct your preferred ‘narrative’. Thus Richard Rorty, ace and highly-touted philosopher of the past forty Biblical years around here.

Vocabularize this, Dick.

Since six blind men can’t agree on the elephant they stumble into in the jungle (it’s long and thick (the trunk); it’s hard and pointy (the tusks); it’s flat and leathery (the ears); it’s round and thick like a tree (the legs); it’s built like a house or a wall (the body itself); it’s thin and serpentine (the tail)) then there can’t really be any such thing as an Elephant at all.

Such logic.

And yet the country has been happily replaying the ancient Eastern warning for decades. Are there enough people left who have the wit and courage to really deal with the Elephant? Especially since now we also seemed to have really pissed it off?

So once you have ‘choiced’ for a mono-Planar and totally-plastic reality*** then you are pretty much un-equipped to deal with the Elephant. Although, for forty Biblical years, that awesomely wrong-headed choice has been funded – with the Beltway’s eager collusion – by holding off the Consequences:  we just  ‘put it on the card’ and used the national Treasure to fund increasingly intensifying efforts to avoid the Consequences and keep trolling the mono-Plane for new sources of excitement and ‘fulfillment’ and ‘liberation’ and distraction. Such progress. Such maturity.

Just how far along Our plot-line will parallel Macbeth’s is yet to be finally revealed.

But if there is high-drama in Our national life, this is where it is.

NOTES

*What traditional Christian – and especially Catholic – thought called Original Sin is probably better translated as Original Sinfulness. It is not an act, but rather a predisposition or tendency to deny one’s own most genuine self (mirroring the individual’s having been created in the Image of God) and instead embracing or yielding-to one’s “inferior” (as the I Ching might put it) urges, and so diverting and deranging one’s God-given gifts, capacities, and energies from their true nature and purpose.

By its very nature, this is most essentially and profoundly disruptive of not only one’s own genuine self, and of one’s relationship with God, but also damaging to the web of relationships among all humans.

Just recently, theoretical physics has proposed as an alternative to ‘string theory’ the concept of ‘M-theory’. ‘M’ here stands for membrane: the idea being that all of life, including humans, comprises a ‘membrane’ – an active and dynamic unity. This vaguely but palpably recalls Obi-Wan’s and the Jedi concept of ‘the Force’, but that concept itself echoed the comprehensive Christian metaphysical vision of an active, dynamic unitive skein of created life, informed and energized and Shaped and somehow guided by God’s benevolent Providence.

But in the Christian vision, Providence was not simply some impersonal ‘force’ but was actually the working-out and deployment of God’s intense, loving concern for all His Creation, especially humans, who were made most closely in His Image.

**See this alarmingly illuminating recent article for an overview of this country’s new military ‘strategy’: we will close down all but a few large overseas bases, in favor of myriad ‘lily-pad’ bases – small, staffed by covert and special-ops forces and drone-operations – all over the planet. The image of the ‘lily-pad’ is taken from a frog implementing his predatory plan by silently moving from lily-pad to lily-pad to get at the juicy insect he intends to consume.

***Marvelously, even as Dustin Hoffman’s eponymous Boomer ‘Graduate’ runs from a conventional world that advises him to ‘get into plastics’ in 1968, the real Boomers totally embraced ‘plastics’ in the sense that they embraced the kiddie-daydream that all of reality – including themselves – was merely ‘plastic’ and could be manipulated into your favorite shape as easily as you (recently) had been doing with piles of Play-Doh in your backyard. And this Mentality and this Stance became the national political and cultural philosophy – because, of course, what did grown-ups know?




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