News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: "Now Is the Winter of Our Discontent" II: Invisibility

Monday, January 14, 2008

"Now Is the Winter of Our Discontent" II: Invisibility

The question about illusion and reality, the inside versus the outside of why a person acts morally or not goes back to Plato. In Republic, Glaucon--one of Socrates' questioners--asks the Greek wise man how we could ever know whether someone is really good. We can't really look into someone's soul--or whatever--after all, so how can we ever know that someone "means it" when they act justly? They might do something good, or apparently so, but that act could be part of a series of acts that end in something bad. After all, Hitler did bring Germany out of economic and social catastrophe, right?

Plato's question about the "really" good is further elaborated in the dialog when Glaucon asks about the nature of justice and suggests that if we could follow people "in imagination," we'd see that their motives were far from pure or sincere. Glaucon tells Socrates:

But as for the second point, that those who practise it do so unwillingly and from want of power to commit injustice--we shall be most likely to apprehend that if we entertain some such supposition as this in thought: [359c] if we grant to each, the just and the unjust, licence and power to do whatever he pleases, and then accompany them in imagination and see whither his desire will conduct each. We should then catch the just man in the very act of resorting to the same conduct as the unjust man because of the self-advantage which every creature by its nature pursues as a good, while by the convention of law1 it is forcibly diverted to paying honor to 'equality.' The license that I mean would be most nearly such as would result from supposing them to have the power [359d] which men say once came to the ancestor of Gyges the Lydian. -- Plato, Republic
The allusion to Gyges refers to a man who discovers a ring that makes him invisible. Glaucon notes that people--everyone, it is assumed--, once released from social conventions and laws, would exploit this situation and commit forbidden and immoral acts.

The myth about the ring of Gyges is a variant of the proverbial fly-on-the wall. Were we to become flies and observe others, what hypocrisy and dissimulation would we find? Wouldn't we want to visit Ms. Goody-two-shoe's apartment and see whether she's as good as she puts out in public? In a world with stories of church leaders and good husbands who turn out to be serial killers, the shadowland that most people inhabit when it comes to dealing with their passions, faults, fantasies, and frailties belies the idea that people can act purely and without self-interest.

The relationship with how art depicts reality is pertinent here. The artist can plumb the imagination and bring to light those secret passions that others might not wish to see exposed. Great artists like Shakespeare portray the dialectic between act and motive, and the disjunction between the two becomes great art in their hands. While the question is a favorite theme of aesthetic theoreticians and even of artists like Borges, the relationship that the question has to morality is often elided if not disregarded altogether. Borges, for example, often takes his Schopenhauerian aesthetics for granted and simply sees the metaphysical conundrum posed by reality and fiction as subsuming ethical questions in the aesthetic experience of terror and paradox.

Shakespeare's Richard III (Earl of Gloucester) seems to be a complete study in this disjunction between reality and illusion. Richard is the Magus of reality--the sleight-of-mind artist who can divert attention from his true intent and put a dagger in the ribs as your attention is diverted. He is a master psychologist and knows how to play the heart strings of gullibility and vanity, disgust and shame, pride and cowardice. Yet it is too simplistic to characterize Gloucester's actions in only utilitarian terms. I will argue later that a Kierkegaardian analysis provides more insight into this character's actions. In this regard, I hope to elicit a broader perspective on Gloucester's brand of evil than the utilitarian or even the Machiavellian vs. Christian framework allows.

There is a chilling scene in Ian McKellen's portrayal of Richard that brings the "looking into the mind" of evil to birth in the viewer in a powerful way. The beginning words of the play are staged in such a way that--unlike in Olivier's version for example--we are moved from an objective, public speech listening to Richard speak to himself in the public restroom. The final words of the speech are spoken by McKellen in front of the public bathroom mirror.

The idea that this should occur in a bathroom is a stroke of genius on the director's part, I suggest. It displaces the viewer from the grand and mighty festivities of the jet set, omni-powerful and beautiful in the prior scenes and relegates it to the most plebeian space that everyone recognizes. The place where many of our bodily functions are in full display in all their disgust and privacy, where our full humanity exposes itself to us in its mundane shame and animality, where we can't hide from ourselves, is a powerful image.

This links to many subthemes that Richard's own rage at his humanity play on. In an extraordinarily powerful way, we see Richard, a man who has seen human disgust and shame at work in his very existence, reveal himself in his true milieu. In the place where we dread to tread, where we have to face ourselves in all our nudity and animality, Richard sharpens his plan and his blade of bitterness gleams brightly.

I have written before about the theme of disgust, especially in relationship to Martha Nussbaum's book on that subject. One of her theses is that disgust originates in a primitive reaction to our own humanity or animal nature. While it might seem that Richard has in some way transcended this disgust at his own deformity, I will argue later that it his rage at his own physical defects that drives him to destroy not only others but himself. This analysis will eventuate in a reference to Kierkegaard's work, The Sickness Unto Death, especially his schematic on despair.

The scene in the bathroom displays another feature. It comes while Richard speaks to his own image. Then in a truly harrowing gesture, he looks behind his shoulder, finally recognizing the presence of the observer--us. For me, at least, this scene is harrowing because I was sucked into the film convention that gives us the illusion that we, the audience, see them but they do not see us. The short moment of recognition that we have been seen by the observed object is disconcerting to say the least.

This gesture of recognition on Gloucester's part: does it make us confidants or co-conspirators? Are we to witness evil take place to learn its secret machinations or to live out in fantasy those secret desires for vengeance we might all harbor? On a deeper level, are we Gloucester's confreres because we ourselves not only find shame in our secret deformities--whether physical, psychological, or social--but also seek to avenge them on a world and a power, nature, that has made us so?

Gloucester is the epitome of illusion--of performing evil while doing apparent good. The scene depicted here clues us into the secret of Gloucester's intent. Like the fly-on-the wall we will witness evil as it unfolds, confidant to its inner workings, geared in to its windings and turns as it maneuvers through the world. The question becomes, however, whether we simply watch Richard's bloody deeds as though they are just another instance of a monster or whether we find in ourselves those same desires and deception that motivate his vast power project of illusion.

As witnesses to this project, we must decide how much the illusion redoubles itself in our own imaginations. Do we let the acid of the picture as it is etched in our souls reveal those secret reservoirs of resentment and revenge that we nurture so secretly and often unconsciously?

The idea of a nation of voyeurs and spectators goes back to Plato. In his famous allegory of the Cave, Plato describes the uninitiated and ignorant masses as living lives of passive spectatorship in a world populated by shadows. Philosophy breaks the chains of this slavery and ultimately leads the seeker to see the Real. Simone Weil update the allegory in political terms, likening the slaves to modern day film goers undergoing indoctrination via propaganda.

It is debatable that Shakespeare had such intentions in mind in his use of the soliloquy. It is not simply a literary technique in his hands, however, and in Richard III we find it used to powerful psychological effect. The fact that we watch Richard's evil plans unfold, as though looking over his misshapen shoulder, makes us complicit in a way that expands Aristotle's notion of catharsis in a profoundly disturbing way.

Kierkegaard analyzed the spectator society in depth. Basing his analysis on sociological concepts, he sees the spectator as a phenomenon endemic to modern capitalist false consciousness. Kierkegaard sees the psychological foundations for this in the human propensity to identify with others and thereby form self-identity. In modern society, the result of this is envy and much of modern psychological resentment and other ethical and moral behavior originates in this envious viewing.

The idea that we can be invisible to others, thereby losing ourselves in a world where moral culpability is lost has many sources. For Kierkegaard, Richard III epitomizes the modern self-conscious ego in its violent ferocity rebelling against the facts of environmental and genetic givenness. The existential situation we all face, in all our fragility, drives us to seek anonymity and invisibility from the stare of others. We seek to cloak ourselves in a secret world of envious self-deceit.

Richard's self-consciousness of his faults and his rebellion against the facts of his physical and social condition is simply the condition of the modern human writ large. For Kierkegaard, this complex of psychological, social, moral, and political concerns is schematized as despair. In the following, I will expand on this concept and describe further how Richard's actions render despair in a prototypical manner.

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