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

Monday, February 24, 2014

Just The Fiction, Ma'am

I was a big fan of Dragnet when it was first aired and never missed an episode.  Millions of  Americans loved that clipped deadpan delivery and Joe Friday’s signature line, “Just the facts, Ma’am”.  We loved Friday’s frying pan face, fedora,  trim little suits, humorless sidekick, Frank Smith.  There were plenty of shoot-em-ups in the Fifties, but Dragnet gave the audience a feel for the boredom and drudgery, as well as the cops-and-robbers action of police work. Its ominous four-note opening to the brass and tympani theme music, and the intonation of the lines, “"Ladies and gentlemen: the story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent" set the stage for the half-hour to come.  Dragnet was part of the TV glue which held families together on Thursday nights.  We all chimed in on whodunit and cheered when our guy got cuffed.

The announcer would describe the premise of each Dragnet episode. "Big Saint" (April 26, 1951) for example, begins with "You're a Detective Sergeant. You're assigned to auto theft detail. A well organized ring of car thieves begins operations in your city. It's one of the most puzzling cases you've ever encountered. Your job: break it."

After the first commercial, the announcer would officially introduce the program: "Dragnet, the documented drama of an actual crime. For the next thirty minutes, in cooperation with the Los Angeles Police Department, you will travel step-by-step on the side of the law through an actual case history, transcribed from official police files. From beginning to end—from crime to punishment—Dragnet is the story of your police force in action." (Wikipedia)

I am currently teaching a course on Shakespeare at the University of South Carolina, and in my introduction I trace my trajectory from English major to a professional career as a management consultant whose job was to identify those social, economic, and cultural factors that determined a country’s development and to design investment programs within the context of those constraints.  I tell my students that for forty years I parsed the facts.  I investigated the many particular historical antecedents that determined the present.  I studied colonialism, tribalism, religion, kinship patterns, ecology, wars, territorial expansion, kingship and empire.  There must be some particular, unique historical configuration that determined a country’s future.

I also tell them that after years slogging through the bush, holding endless interviews, and mining libraries from Alexandria to Timbuktu, I always ended up with the same conclusion – that there is nothing unique about any country’s history.  Human societies regardless of their wealth or geographical privilege all seem to act in the same self-interested, self-protective ways.  African empires (Gao, Ghana,Songhai) were as determined to expand, consolidate, and rule their territories as Roman emperors, Genghis Khan, Persian Shahs, or English kings.

Twentieth Century wars were no different.  Nazi Germany wanted European conquest and hegemony.  Stalin wanted a Russian empire that extended from Vladivostok to Germany.  Mao was only content after he had extended Communist rule from the Mongolian steppes to the jungles of Hainan.  American adventurism and the Islamic wars of the Twenty-first Century have resulted from the same desire for conquest.

Accounts from the earliest European travelers to Africa (Mungo Park, Rene du Chaillu) reported predatory tribal behavior that was no different from that of kingdoms and empires.  They launched raids, took slaves, robbed, pillaged, attacked and defended their territory.

Mungo Park

No period of history was any different.  Athens and Sparta fought debilitating wars.  The principalities of pre-Garibaldi Italy built fortresses, waged wars, and accessed all economic, political, and military resources to defeat the enemy, retain hard-won territories, and reign supreme. The story is the same in pre-British India, Mandarin China, or shogun Japan.

My reading of social anthropology and the works of Freud, Adler, and Jung suggested that things were no different at the nuclear level.  Husbands and wives, siblings, and relatives all vie for power, legitimacy, and the biggest shares of the family pie whether they are Yorks and Lancasters or Georgia crackers.

History, sociology, and anthropology all seemed to point in the same direction.  Human beings were all propelled by the same self-interested drives.  Family dynamics were the microcosm of range wars, tribal disputes, regional conflicts, and international wars.  The grabbing, temper-tantrum throwing, volcanic two-year old was at the heart of it all.  We had socialized our anti-social instincts just so far.  Human nature – hardwired and permanent – could never be denied.

If this was all true, I reasoned, then there was little point in pursuing the facts. It was only the particular and peculiar expressions of human nature that were compelling.  Of course everyone acted in their own self-interest, but individual stories of greed, duplicity, deception, and cruelty would be endlessly fascinating.  Fiction would give insistent demand a face.  It would give desire form and flesh. It would make plotting laughable, turn family drama into melodrama and grand guignol.  In other words, it would give humanity and human substance to the most irremediable compulsions. Reading fiction – or watching theatre and dance; or looking at art – would relieve us from the unrewarding search for answers and allow us to enjoy the ride. 

Caring less about why people do things but enjoying watching them was definitely a better way to spend one’s time.  It was not exactly fun to witness the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, but it was a treat to watch George W. Bush strut down the runway of an aircraft carrier and pronounce, “Mission accomplished”.  Viktor Yanukovych was as ignorant a politician and as obtuse a leader as they come; but his personal pirate ship-themed restaurant, private golf course, and luxurious palatial appointments were ridiculously familiar. The revolutionaries that stormed the palaces of Saddam Hussein, Moamar Qaddafi, and Nicolai Ceausescu found exactly the same excess and bourgeois luxury.  Each dictator’s personal taste was of course a bit different – more chintz here, a few more chandeliers there – but basically the absurd greed and indifference was exactly the same.

The dereliction of duty of American politicians is lamentable, but the smarmy sexual episodes, lying cover-ups, and insincere apologies are the stuff of Hollywood.  It wasn’t that Mark Sanford, John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, or Anthony Weiner were diverging from the normal trajectory of powerful men, it was the way they did it which was entertaining.

I told my Beaufort class that I wanted to see what Shakespeare had to say about the human tragedy.  If anyone should be able to illuminate the seemingly perpetual repetition of human events, then he should. 

I was not disappointed, for in his Histories, Tragedies, Comedies, and Romances, he exposed every curiosity, every twist, every absurd notion, every outrageous expression of desire, lust for power and authority possible.

Reading the Histories one after the other in chronological order, one notes both the historical progression and the uncanny similarity of events.  Kings, queens, princes, pretenders, and common men all strive for power, legitimacy, wealth, and respect.  All fought with no holds barred. War was to win, spoils to be enjoyed.  These titanic struggles were amoral episodes of territorial acquisition and self-protection. No one escaped Shakespeare’s pen.  Jack Cade, the ignoramus but ambitious commoner who tries to mount a rebellion against Henry VI is no different.  Kill all lawyers he says, burn books, cleanse society of leeches and parasites. Only Jack Cade should rule.

Away with him, I say! hang him with his pen and
ink-horn about his neck. (Henry VI..2.2)

The Tragedies are stories about power and legitimacy as well.  Julius Caesar has not yet committed any crimes against the state, but he just might; so Cassius and his cohorts conspire to murder him.  Coriolanus has a yenta for a mother, and she does him in and assumes the power she had groomed him for. Cymbeline, Leontes, and Othello are consumed by jealousy and their paths to social status, admiration, and reverence are undone by their very human passions.  Cleopatra doesn’t give a fig for the besotted Antony, and both go to their ends unhappily.  Rosalind, Viola, and Beatrice run rings around their suitors, but marry beneath them in order to secure wealth and position.

In other words, reading Shakespeare is far more entertaining and rewarding than any volume of history, biography, or political exegesis.

The same is true for Chekhov who explored how people behave when the world they know is changing forever.  His stories are not about the coming Russian Revolution but about ordinary people burdened by the weight of the past and frustrated by their inability to adapt to it.

Ibsen wrote about willful, dominant women who were, in Nietzsche’s terminology ‘beyond good and evil’.  They were relentless in their pursuit of personal power and exercised it as a validation – the only validation – of their humanity.  Hedda Gabler, Rebekka West, and Hilde Wangel are superheroes who react to stifling social constraints through action and determination.

Every important playwright – O’Neill, Miller, Williams, and Albee – displayed human need, greed, and venality in relief.  They understood that the indomitable drive of a common human nature would lead everyone to the same ends; but were fascinated by the unusual and always unique ways that individuals would act.

Absalom, Absalom is a story of American history, but more a tale of the tragedy of personal rise and fall, overreaching, risk, and the unquenchable desire for wealth, status, and respect.  History – the facts of slavery, the South, territorial expansion, and the polyglot culture of New Orleans – are important but only as backdrop and context for the heroic struggles of Thomas Sutpen.

The hysterics over global warming, the One Percent, the glass ceiling, LGBT rights, the death penalty, and vouchers are familiar and endlessly amusing. There is no right or wrong; and given the perspective of history, all ‘momentous’ decisions blur and blend, and become less important and more insignificant over time.  The critic Jan Kott applied the term The Grand Mechanism to the Histories of Shakespeare – princes and paupers alike were caught on the gears of historical engines which revolved perpetually.  Individual actions were nothing more than energy impulses which turned the wheels.

There is a certain stillness to this remove. To have come to a point where things don’t matter so much as they are enjoyed.  I have always been a card-carrying individualist, and still believe in the value of personal enterprise and the expression of individual will; but I cannot help realizing that despite myself, I have finally joined the human circus.

I read only fiction, and enjoy stories about the lion tamer, the clowns, the performing seals, the elephants, the trapeze, and the high-wire act.

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