Saturday, June 27, 2020

Zizek, Pandemic, and World War I

Zizek, who has very quickly produced a book called Pandemic!, noted in an interview that the Covid crisis is a combination of 1918 (pandemic), 1932 (economic collapse), and 1968 (social unrest) all rolled into one. He also stated:
The life that they knew will not return. Both the left and the right don’t understand the reality of the epidemic, and refuse to accept the full consequences of it.
As  people are looking backwards for parallels as they look forward to possible futures, I feel inclined to jump into the fray.  World War I keeps popping into my mind--in other words, 1914--as a frame of reference, a touchstone year, more so than 1918, 1932, or 1968.

As historian David Stevenson writes in 2014 in "World War I and the 'Short War Illusion,'" when World War I began in 1914, there were runs on the British banking system and panic food buying, but many people thought the war would be over quickly--by late autumn or Christmas. Even after the war became literally entrenched, many clung to the hope it would soon end, what Stevenson calls "wishful thinking." Military commanders who knew the war would last longer hoped it would not last more than 18 months to two years and did not anticipate the catastrophic death rate.

An opulent way of life that had lasted many decades ended with World War I.
What interests me most about the World War I era--let us say 1914-1918, though 1920 might be a better end date--is how much life changed. As I was researching my Bonhoeffer book, I became aware of an endless trail of upper and middle class European lament about a culture that had been destroyed by the war, a world that to many seemed unshakeable. Interestingly and frustratingly, these laments assumed that none of what changed needed to be explained.

 This nostalgic mourning goes on for decades and is captured in Jean Renoir's 1938 film about World War I, The Grand Illusion, a movie anachronistic now but wildly embraced at the time. It paints a flattering, idealized, and nostalgic picture of international upper class solidarity and shared values from a "lost time" viewed through highly rose-colored classes. The idea that somehow life would spring back to "normal"--ie, the prewar model that was desirable for people of privilege--seems to have persisted up to about 1950.

The Grand Illusion: A nostalgic and idealized view of the World War I world.

I became interested in this, too, because of the unexplained evidences of change that occurred, say, in the life of Virgina Woolf. Before the war, she (and after her marriage, she and Leonard) lived comfortably on her inherited income. The money she earned writing book reviews was, before her marriage, her "mad" money, to be spent as she willed. She and her siblings, before her marriage, took months-long holidays  in the English countryside, repeating the pattern they grew up with, traveled to Europe, maintained homes with servants in downtown London, and seemed to do all of this financially effortlessly. By 1920, however, money has become a much more acute problem: the Woolfs needed Virginia's review income to live, trips to Europe were curtailed, and very tight budgets had become the order of the day. As Jane Harrison put it, the 1920s Woolfs were as "poor as rats."

In a fine, engaging new biography of Edith Nesbitt (The Life and Loves of Edith Nesbitt, by Eleanor Fitzsimon), much of what happened is spelled out in more detail. Though children's author Nesbitt continued to produce her books, money seemed to evaporate after 1914 to the point that this enterprising and always romantic minded woman was organizing growing and selling flowers at the end of her front yard (on a well-travelled route) and growing vegetables to survive.

While happened between 1914-18 was hyperinflation. At a certain point, the British government, completely broke but needing to finance a costly war, simply resorted to printing money. The country was supposedly on the gold standard, but, out of resources, it bought armaments with paper that had no gold to back it up. This led to rapid inflation as cash with literally no value flooded into the society. The inherited incomes that once sustained comfortable lives lost purchase power--and never fully recovered.  The trauma was so deep and widespread that nobody at the time needed to explain it: it was understood. 

On the principle that reality imitates art, I keep thinking of Dr. Zhivago. The Russian Revolution was the direct outcome of a wealthy and out of touch, utterly incompetent wannabe strongman  (Czar Nicholas II's) mismanagement of World War I. A fraud like Rasputin is not so far off from the "advisors" around our great leader today. Kaiser Wilhelm II, Czar Nicholas II, and Donald Trump are the result of putting an out-of-touch elite in charge and allowing reality to take a back seat to wishful fantasies. 

Right now, we are in a moment when, as in 1914, we think this crisis will pass quickly. From the resurgence of disease the reopening is causing, it seems instead that the pandemic might be the beginning of something that will last far longer than we think.

Adding to stress, Covid is coming on top of the fact that in the U.S. we haven't recovered yet (not for the average person) from the 2008 stock market crash. Many of us have been longing for the pre-2008 world to reemerge, or to use a better metaphor, for the ship drifting off course for 12 years  to get turned back so it can start steaming toward that distant shore. Now it looks like that ship has been blown by hurricane a thousand miles the other way. 

On the other hand, life is endlessly surprising--and as a friend says, this is a moment to live in the Now and appreciate all it has to offer. On the positive side too, if old systems come tumbling down, we have a chance to build a more earth-friendly world, one that may make our carbon-based present economy seem as barbaric (and unnecessary)  as the slave owning past. It is also worth noting that the pre-World War I had a belief in progress that the war undid: maybe our own crisis will undo persistent dystopic visioning and show that life can get better.

Friday, June 12, 2020

L'ecriture humaine: Hamlet's pacifist subtext: two kings' fight for land

In Act I scene 1 of Hamlet, Shakespeare's begins his startling pacifist subtext. Part of what makes the opening so ominous is Claudius' war preparation. The two palace guards stand uneasy on dark, eery, misty castle ramparts late at night, knowing that the world is changing but not what any of it means. They realize that the more powerfully connected Horatio will have information. When he arrives, they ask him about the feverish arms build up while hoping that he will validate the existence of a ghost.

Horatio explains the background. Fortinbras, king of Norway, dared Hamlet (Hamlet's father), king of Denmark, to hand-to-hand combat over a piece of land. The loser was to forfeit the contested territory. King Hamlet won by killing King Fortinbras. Now, however, that both kings are dead, Fortinbras' son Fortinbras is marching with an army to avenge his father and regain the small territory. 

This is a remarkable story, one that seems a fantasia. How often have people asked: why not save all the suffering and bloodshed of war by having the leaders of two countries fight to settle a dispute? The thinking is that if they had to risk their own lives, world leaders would be less likely to jump into conflicts. Beyond that, how much easier, how much less horrible, to have disputes settled this way? 

Here, Shakespeare gives full reign to this fantasy as part of the play's prehistory.

David' Oath of the Horatii shows the mourning of the women.

While there are no modern equivalents to two kings settling a dispute through hand-to-hand combat, there is an ancient one of proxy warfare. Livy tells the story of the Roman king and the Sabine dictator deciding to avoid a war through a fight to the death between six of their warriors. The Romans send out their three Horatii to fight the three Sabine Curiatii. Rome wins.  The peace lasts as long as a peace usually does.

Moving back to Hamlet we learn, too, in these early scenes, that Hamlet's ghost is suffering terrible torments in purgatory as his sins are burned away. If he were allowed to speak of them, he tells Hamlet, the torments  would stand Hamlet's hair on end. This offer a contrasting portrait of his father from the one Hamlet presents. Hamlet describes his father as  a Hyperion--a sun god--in contrast to the oversexed, animalistic "satyr" of Claudius. Yet Hamlet senior's own testimony suggests he has much to atone for--while at the same time, perhaps it is commendable when a king, unable to repent of sins before death, ends up in purgatory rather than hell.

By the end of the play, Hamlet has achieved an inner peace. What he considers his miraculous escape from death at the hands of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in England leads him to believe that a benign God has the world in his hands. For the first time, Hamlet rests easy. He tells Horatio:

...  our deep plots do pall, and that should teach us
There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will—

The deep plots that do pall or pale or fail are Claudius' against Hamlet. God, Hamlet thinks, is on his side and protecting him. He does not, as people don't when God' grace seems to fall on them, question why God would favor them but kill others. Hamlet doesn't wonder that God allows Rosencrantz or Guildenstern--or for that matter his own father--to die. His own sense of divine protection is enough.

Hamlet does not kill Claudius until he realizes Claudius has poisoned Gertrude by letting her drink from the poisoned chalice meant for Hamlet. As it has been throughout the play, only the threat Claudius poses to his mother can motivate Hamlet to kill a fellow royal.

A subversively peaceful subtext run through Hamlet. Two kings fight to the death over a piece of land to spare their armies the bloody cost of battle. A prince who loves his murdered father loathes the idea of avenging his death. When this prince tries to use the example of a fellow prince marching on his country to inspire himself to revenge, he ends, instead, profoundly questioning waging a war for something as fragile as honor. Being a prince, Hamlet is inherently a dangerous individual because of the power put into his hands. At the same time, the soul of this prince, self-deluded as it is, longs for peace. Through him, Shakespeare encourages us to question vengeance, warfare, and privilege--and to dream of a world in which princes would fight for land themselves rather than putting armies in the field.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

L'ecriture humaine: Hamlet's pacifist subtext and the problem of the prince

I held off posting this because it seemed frivolous against the George Floyd killing, but the more I thought about it, the more I understood Shakespeare's meditation on the relationship between murder and power is relevant for our times. Floyd's killer had too  much power to kill with impunity. Floyd, like those Hamlet killed, was dehumanized. 

Hamlet as a character doesn't cohere in ways I would like.  

In Hamlet's character, Shakespeare created, on the one hand, an introspective, sensitive, and humane prince who deeply questions and critiques the revenge and war ethic. By doing so, Shakespeare played a double game in this play, writing a revenge tragedy that would satisfy his audience's desire for bloodlust while at the same time undermining the bloodlust ethic.

This Delacroix painting captures the reality of Polonius as a person.

Yet while Hamlet is his vehicle for critiquing violence, Hamlet turns into a heartless killer. Hamlet murders Polonius, mistaking him for Claudius as he hides behind a tapestry ("arras")  in Gertrude's room.  Later, Hamlet orchestrates the deaths of courtiers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Why, one wonders, did Shakespeare turn revenge-averse Hamlet into a murderer?

Notably,  Hamlet does not have a problem killing people of lower rank. His hesitancy comes into play only when it is a matter of killing a person of his own status.

Hamlet is callous towards both Polonius and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In terms of Polonius's murder, it is possible that Hamlet, who has most likely hallucinated, rather than actually seen, Claudius' ghost in Gertrude's room, is half mad at the moment he strikes, hardly knowing what he is doing.

Yet even the calmer Hamlet disparages rather than shows compassion for the dead courier. In Act three, scene 4, he says to Gertrude:

I’ll lug the guts into the neighbor room. ... Indeed this counselor... was in life a foolish prating knave.

Hamlet contrasts Polonius' still serenity in death to his foolish chatter in life. By doing so,  Hamlet implies Polonius is better off dead. He also, at this moment, implies he will deal harshly and cold-bloodedly towards Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are accompanying him to England--even though he notes they are childhood companions, individuals he knows and for whom one might imagine he would feel some empathy. He states, however, that he plans to punish them for being the willing tools of Claudius, hoisting them with their own petard:
For ’tis the sport to have the engineer/Hoist with his own petard. And ’t shall go hard

In Act V, scene 2, having returned from his off scene trip, he explains to Horatio how he tricked the two courtiers. He opened and read the letter Claudius sent with them in their pouch. In the letter, unbeknownst to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Claudius called for Hamlet to be immediately beheaded upon landing on English soil. Hamlet, who has his father's royal signet ring with him, rewrites the letter to turn the tables: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are to be killed, without even time to "shrive" or repent of their sins, but be put to "sudden death."

In ruminating about this, Hamlet says that the two courtiers are "not near my conscience." They deserve what they get, he says, because they "made love" to their profession. Essentially, he is indifferent to their deaths. He argues that they brought it on themselves:

Their defeat /Does by their own insinuation grow.
He states that when "baser" natures come between "mighty opposites" they get what they deserve. 

Ironically, this images affirms the humanity of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, something Hamlet cannot do. 

In having Hamlet say that he and Claudius are mighty opposites amid baser people, Shakespeare highlights the problems and psychopathy of princedom, as well as the strong identity Hamlet feels with Claudius that his conscious mind wants to deny. Hamlet might hesitate to kill someone as royal as he is--and he might hesitate to sacrifice an army to gain a small conquest--but he shows his ruthless belief in his royal prerogative to kill when it comes to the little people around him.

Why would Shakespeare do this? One argument might be that  he wants to show that Hamlet is deteriorating as the play goes on. Hamlet moves from passion killing to coldblooded murder, plotted as Claudius might have done, because the disease and corruption of the Danish court has started to infect him. 

But another, more compelling answer is suggested by Tolstoy, who, writing not about Shakespeare but the artist in general, asserts in Anna Karenina that the true artist is:

inspired directly by what is within the soul, without caring whether what is painted [or written] will belong to any recognized school [genre].

Shakespeare did clearly care about genre. But he went deeper than genre, as Tolstoy did, telling the truth as he saw it. A truth he knew--and makes clear in many of his plays--is that princes are inherently dangerous. Shakespeare uses Hamlet the prince to articulate what is within his writer's soul--a distaste for revenge and violence and a belief that the powerful, buttressed by ideologies of bloodlines and far too much power, are inherently dangerous. In Hamlet, Shakespeare leaves us with a dilemma: those with the most power to end the violence plaguing humankind are those most hardwired to justify their own use of violence. In this ragged, brilliant play, Shakespeare makes us uneasy by raising more questions than answers.