"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Nietzsche, Macbeth, and Human Sacrifice

I was reading a criticism of Macbeth by Harold Bloom, and saw his quote from Nietzsche:
Whoever thinks that Shakespeare’s theatre has a moral effect, and that the sight of Macbeth irresistibly repels one from the evil of ambition, is in error…He who is really possessed by raging ambition beholds this its image with joy, and if the hero perishes by his passion this precisely is the sharpest spice in the hot draught of this joy…The tragic poet has just as little desire to take sides against life with his images of life! He cries, rather: ‘it is the stimulant of stimulants, this exciting, changing, dangerous, gloomy, and often sun-drenched existence! Daybreak (1880)
Bloom reflects:
Nietzsche links up here with William Blake’s adage that the highest art is immoral (my italics), and that ‘exuberance is beauty’. Macbeth certainly has ‘an excess of blood and energy’; its terrors…are so primordial that they seem…shamanistic….Christianity is as irrelevant to Macbeth as it is to King Lear, and indeed to all the Shakespeare tragedies.
Jan Kott refers to the terrorist Chen in Malraux's Condition humaine who

'utters one of the most terrifying sentences written in the mid-Twentieth Century: "A man who has never killed is a virgin".  This sentence means that killing is cognition, as, according to the Old Testament, the sexual act is cognition; it also means that the experience of killing cannot be communicated, just as the experience of the sexual act cannot be conveyed.  But this sentence means also that the act of killing changes the person who has performed it; from then on he is a different man living in a different world.
 'Macbeth has not only killed to become king, but to reassert himself.  He has chosen between Macbeth who is afraid to kill and Macbeth who has killed.  But Macbeth who has killed is a new Macbeth'

All the Shakespeare plays I have now read – the Histories, King Lear, Hamlet, and Macbeth -  have been plays about ambition, some legitimate (Bolingbroke’s claim to the throne; Hamlet), many questionable in the complex genealogical history of early England, and some purely unrestrained desire for the throne (Richard III, Macbeth).  In all cases such ambition has not been punished within a moral context (‘Since moral contexts, as Nietzsche advised us, are simply irrelevant to Macbeth’), but by rivals to the throne.  Killing is commonplace, murder only less so, but there is no moral or legal repercussions to these acts.  Killing is usually followed by killing, and the new order established. 

What there is in Shakespeare is some moral doubt, but usually before the act( Macbeth and Hamlet certainly do deliberate before their acts – and Hamlet is criticized by those of us valuing revenge for deliberating far too long).  Some kings have moments of remorse (most notably Richard III when he sees the ghosts of all he has killed), but they are not stopped.  Richard III shakes off his remorse and goes on to battle. 

I travelled extensively through Mexico in the mid-Seventies, and visited many of the important Aztec, Zapotec, Mixtec, and Toltec pre-Colombian sites. Many of these cultures practiced human sacrifice, and standing in the ruins of Monte Alban and some lesser-known Meso-American sites, I understood the power of an immanent religion - one in which god or the gods were everywhere - the sun, the mountains, the deserts and plains.  A man was insignificant surrounded by this majesty and dominance of the natural world. 
The gods were not only everywhere, but a looming, brooding, and violent presence – a still and resident power, but a retributive and vengeful one expressed in thunder, lightning, and earthquakes. Human sacrifice to these gods, in appeasement, deference, or awe was the purest and most powerful human emotion.

I wished I had lived in those days.

My thoughts then and now were about how this immanent power of the natural world and this ecstatic expression of fear and respect have dissapated.  We are, compared to this thundering of the Gods (the heath in King Lear; the Wicked Sisters in Macbeth) weak, dissolute, and flaccid.  Passion is limited to, at best, to religious revelation – an ‘ecstasy’ of seeing the Living God’ – at worst, sexual release.

My refuge, then, is tragedy – Shakespeare, in particular, but the Greeks as well.  Both recognize the individual as the only source of true passionate expression; and both have little to do with the weak, the prevaricating, and the incompetent. 

My conviction of the primacy and supremacy of the individual – in acts, words, deeds, and religious expression – is continuously reconfirmed.

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