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Imagine a “provocative” Broadway play about the U.S. use of torture in detention centers like Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.
In this imaginary play, a volunteer is requested from the audience, someone who preferably identifies himself as a “devout Muslim.” The volunteer is brought on stage and subjected to stage torture, as a way of shocking the audience, but also of using the horror produced by a direct representation of the real thing as an argument against the very thing it shows.
But imagine that the regular actors are all tied up in the basement one night, and in their stead are diabolical CIA agents who have become obsessed with this particular play, and seen it night after night, memorizing it entirely. When the agent-actors get their volunteer, they don't stage torture him, they really do it. There is blood, screams, and a look of utterly convincing terror on the man's face. It's disturbing, certainly, but few, if any audience members imagine that it could possibly be anything other than the most powerful realism (“Maybe the man in the audience was a plant,” says one woman). At the end, there is an overwhelming standing ovation; the audience is truly “moved,” and more angry at the government than ever. But of course, as they watched the torture they were completely involved in the action, enjoying it utterly. The applause is for the quality and intensity of the performance, not so much the ostensible politics of the play.
The audience is roused, but what does it learn from watching this display? Hard to say. Possibly, nothing it wouldn't have also known from watching an excellent fake version of the same thing. Or maybe it doesn't matter. What might be more interesting is the theory of theater that drove the diabolical CIA agents to do what they did. Their goal, of course, was not to discourage a practice by showing it directly (which may or may not work, because of the addictive quality of the spectacle of violence), but to actually use the theater to cause harm to someone they did not like.
A meditation on these lines is at play in Orhan Pamuk's Snow, except I've played with some things in Pamuk's story (about the 'headscarf' controversy, which is tearing apart Turkish politics), to fit the American context.
In Pamuk's Snow, two mindbending works of 'theater' are performed during the course of events that constitute the novel's 'present'. The first is described as a piece of moldy nationalist propaganda, “My Fatherland or my Scarf,” in which religious fanatics plot a conspiracy and are gunned down by the noble protectors of Turkish state. Only, in the mad version of it that is actually performed in the novel, when the police (who are real police, acting under orders from a mad actor who has become a state official) gun down the fanatics they do not go after the actors on the stage, but the audience itself. They specifically target boys from the local religious high school in the audience, who are enthusiastically voicing their disapproval of the secularist play. The police rifles are loaded; a small secularist massacre ensues, which comes to be known as the Coup throughout the second half of the book.
There are a number of possible angles on Pamuk's approach to what might be called Absolute Theater (i.e., theater which does the very thing it seems to be only representing). One thread has to do with genre and authority. The protagonist of the novel is a modernist, atheist poet named Ka, who is visiting the small town of Kars to investigate the recent spell of suicides by young Muslim girls, who were protesting the state ban on headscarfs in public settings, such as public schools. After a dry spell of many years, Ka is suddenly overtaken by poetic inspiration at numerous moments in the novel. Poems come to him like spells of nausea – from something or somewhere outside of himself (something perhaps divine). But the poems are nevertheless utterly private and personal, and are never cited or interpreted in the novel. What do they do? Echoing Auden, we could say that the poems don't seem to make anything happen.
There is also a first-person narrator in Pamuk's novel, named “Orhan,” who is following the trail of Ka's experiences in the town of Kars. Through “Orhan,” there is some interest in the novel in thinking about what the form of the novel. In contrast to both drama and poetry, novels (in Pamuk's novel) are given both historical and anthropological authority – they have the power to describe the totality of a people or an event. Even if fictional, a novel is, in some sense, the most straightforwardly and widely 'true' of the three genres. One of Ka's interlocutors, a young man named Fazil, seems all too aware of this when he asks “Orhan” to insert a disclaimer in the novel he knows the latter is writing:
'I did think of something, but you may not like it. . . If you write a book set in Kars and put me in it, I'd like to tell your readers not to believe anything you say about me, anything you say about any of us. No one could understand us from so far away.'
'But no one believes in that way what he read in a novel,' I said.
'Oh yes, they do,' he cried. 'If only to see themselves as wise and superior and humanistic, they need to think of us as sweet and funny, and convince themselves that they sympathize with the way we are and even love us. But if you would put in what I've just said, at least your readers will keep a little room for doubt in their minds.' (425-426)
On the one hand, it is a mark of Fazil's provincial simplicity – his stupidity – not to be able to comprehend the basic function of representation in art. He is a young man who was, earlier in the book at least, associated with the Islamists in the town, and perhaps his naivete about the truth-value of “fiction” is tied to the trouble the very religious have with accepting any “representation” that deviates from the sacred, or that derives from any individual's self-ascribed authority. On the other hand, with that naivete comes an unmistakable respect for the work of art as a work in language that has power.
The secularists in this novel are harried people, losing the battle against Islam in the countryside. The fantasy of a secularist play that becomes Absolute, and of a literary work that becomes Real, is in some sense a fantasy that the naïve view of Art (i.e., Art is never fictional) might in fact be true after all. It is a way of thinking about representation where “literature” (which is by definition secular) embraces a kind of representationalist fundamentalism as the only effective way of communicating in a society in which representation is forbidden.
The problem of efficacy not just a problem for artists living in environments consumed by religious fundamentalism. Indeed, it might just be a quintessentially modern/modernist problem, depending on how it's framed. Aren't genres like Installation Art and Reality TV also attempting to bridge Reality (which normally has all the authority), and Art (which normally has none)? There might even be something a little Nietzschean about it. (Perhaps one could insert a helpful quote from The Birth of Tragedy here.)
2. Paul De Man on Hegel
Nietzsche isn't mentioned in Pamuk's novel, though there are some references to the “play to end all plays” that smell a little like Nietzsche. And Pamuk wisely refrains from offering any straightforward theory of theater or aesthetics in the discourse of the novel itself. There is, however, an intriguing reference to Hegel, which might be a starting point for a different kind of discussion:
“It was Hegel who first noticed that history and theater are made of the same materials,' said Sunay. 'Remember: just as in the theater, history chooses those who play the leading roles. And just as actors put their courage to the test onstage, so too do the chosen few on the stage of history.' (199)
Sunay, the speaker here, is the mad actor/state official who orders the actors in “My Fatherland or my scarf” to be replaced by real police, carrying loaded weapons, who shoot down the religious fundamentalists in the audience.
Reading this, I started poking around with Hegel's theories of theater and aesthetics, but mostly came up with dead-ends. (The quote here might be a little bit helpful, but not terribly so.)
I did read two essays by Paul De Man on Hegel's Aesthetics, with mixed results. “Sign and Symbol in Hegel's Aesthetics” in Blindness and Insight turns out to be an essay which essentially argues that Hegel's two strongest statements in the Lectures on Aesthetics, namely, “The beautiful is the sensory manifestation of the idea,” and “Art is for us a thing of the past” are in fact versions of the same thing. De Man finds a way to interpret the word “past” as a kind of reference to memory and memorization: Erinnerung and Gedachtnis. De Man has a very complicated argument, to show, in effect that for Hegel, art is about memorization, and therefore perhaps, the past. Here is the summary statement:
We can now assert that the two statements 'art is for us a thing of the past' and 'the beautiful is the sensory manifestation of the idea' are in fact one and the same. To the extent that the paradigm for art is thought rather than perception, the sign rather than the symbol, writing rather than painting or music, it will also be memorization rather than recollection. As such, it belongs indeed to a past which, in Proust's words, could never be recaptured, retrouve. Art is 'of the past' in a radical sense, in that, like memorization, it leaves the interiorization of experience forever behind. It is of the past to the extent that it materially inscribes, and thus forever forgets, its ideal content. The reconciliation of the two main thesis of the Aesthetics occurs at the expense of the aesthetic as a stable philosophical category. What the Aesthetics calls the beautiful turns out to be, also, something very remote from what we associate with the suggestiveness of symbolic form.
The last few sentences are hard for me to quite parse, even though I've read this essay of De Man's twice. What is clear is that De Man argues that Hegel's “past” can be read “radically” (as memory), so that Hegel's theory of aesthetics might be read as not actually opposed to Art. But even after performing the rescue operation, he still isn't happy with the (new) theory of aesthetics he sees in Hegel. This turns out not to be an essay that recuperates Hegel after all; rather, De Man finds yet another way of saying either we don't understand Hegel, or he doesn't make any sense. (It's hard for me to imagine that De Man, when he had finished writing this essay, was quite satisfied with where he landed up.)
That said, interesting stuff happens along the way, particularly as the essay touches upon the distinction between Classical art and Romanticism, which are so important in De Man's other essays. And the follow-up essay to this one (“Hegel on the Sublime”) is quite interesting as well. Did you know that for Hegel, there is no distinction between the sublime and the beautiful (“The sublime for Hegel is the absolutely beautiful.”) ?
The most salient passage in the second essay for our purposes is De Man's reading of Hegel's appropriation of the “Hebraic” turn to iconoclasm as offering the first textual interpretation of the sublime. For Hegel, the sublime (or the absolutely beautiful) really only happens in language. As De Man puts it:
Hebraic poetry is sublime because it is iconoclastic; it rejects art as plastic or architectural representation, be it as temple or statue. 'Since it is impossible to conceive of an image of the divine that would in any degree be adequate, there is no place for the plastic arts in the sublime sacred art of the Jews. Only the poetry of a representation that manifests itself by means of the word will be acceptable.' In its explicit separation from anything that could be perceived or imagined, the word indeed appears here as the inscription which, according to the Encyclopedia, is the first and only phenomenal manifestation of the idea. Monuments and statues made of stone and metal are only pre-aesthetic. They are sensory appearances, all right, but not, or not yet, appearances of the idea. The idea appears only as written inscription. (11)
The best example of the sublime written inscription turns out to be the Fiat Lux, which, De Man points out, was also mentioned as an instance of the sublime in language by Longinus himself. And De Man's passage on this (which I won't quote here) is a beautifully argued introduction to speech act theory that bypasses Derrida – he makes the point about the performative in language without the confusing (and obscuring) “play” of “Structure, Sign and Play.”
3. Pamuk's deconstruction
We've gotten considerably away from Pamuk, though all the roads can be made to lead home again if it is wished. It might go something like this:
The fantasy of a theater that becomes absolute is a fantasy of claiming (or restoring) the divine performative. Absolute theater is "sublime" for Hegel, though one can legitimately ask whether it has anything to do with art or aesthetics. (However, judging from De Man's own rigorously achieved dead-end in "Sign and Symbol in Hegel's Aesthetics, it may just be that Hegel's theory of aesthetics itself doesn't have much to do with art.)
In Pamuk's novel, this fantasy is one experienced, or performed, by secular writers, but it is itself a species of absolutism that is a mirror image of the very form of absolutism it claims to be opposing.