Mesocosm

"A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us." – Franz Kafka

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The Coming Forth by Day of Osiris Jones

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Conrad Aiken’s beautiful and haunting little book of poems uses E. A. Wallis Budge’s translation of the Egyptian Book of Going Forth by Day, popularly known as the Book of the Dead, as a framework for exploring that which is eternal in the light of individual, transitory experience.

While the Book of the Dead instructs souls journeying to the afterlife on the visions they will see and the trials they must pass, Aiken makes an afterlife of this very world, giving voice to chairs, rooms, mirrors, and various other objects and allowing them to bear witness to the life of its titular character. They speak from a perspective strangely outside of time, giving an impression something like hieratic Egyptian figure drawings.

It is a stage of ether, without space, —
a space of limbo without time, —
a faceless clock that never strikes;

and it is bloodstream at its priestlike task,–
the indeterminate and determined heart,
that beats, and beats, and does not know it beats.

Or take this bit from “Mr. Jones Addresses a Looking-Glass,” possibly an echo of the classic Egyptian text “Dialog between Self and Soul”:

Mr Jones

how can you know what here goes on
behind this flesh-bright frontal bone?
here are the world and god, become
for all their depth a simple Sum.

The mirror

well, keep the change, then, Mr. Jones,
and, if you can, keep brains and bones,
but as for me I’d rather be
unconscious, except when I see.

Voices speak with a curious lack of interiority, and the effect is one of depersonalization, and of dawning awareness of a more transcendent movement passing through life.

and it is life, but it is also death,
it is the whisper of the always lost
but always known, it is the first and last
of heaven’s light, the end and the beginning,
follows the moving memory like a shadow,
and only rests, at last, when that too comes to rest.

A fascinating read, but sadly, rather difficult to find.

Written by Mesocosm

June 5, 2014 at 5:29 pm

Posted in Reviews, Uncategorized

James Joyce’s Art

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“The intricacy of this scheme should not conceal a fact about all Joyce’s writings which he mentioned to Budgen, that his complexity was only in his means. ‘With me,’ he said, ‘the thought is always simple.”
   -Richard Ellmann

James Joyce is one of the great artists of our age, casting a brilliant light on the mind and its mysteries from a remarkable stance of warmth and affirmation. His work is unified and shaped by a common set of concerns, which he examined to great effect in a single line throughout his career, leaving us nothing less than a joyful and profound image of our spiritual and creative possibilities.

Finnegans Wake famously begins “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore and bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” This river of creation burbles from the earliest wellsprings of childhood, as chronicled with delightful precision in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, then flows on through the process of maturation and individuation in Ulysses, and on through the deepest wellsprings of art and religion in the dream world of Finnegans Wake, and finally back into the sea.

In this post I’d like to try to bring across something of the main line of Joyce’s art as I’ve come to see it by focusing on three short passages in his three major works. I believe these moments, viewed in aggregate, signal the basic trajectory of his overall project, and I hope it will be thought-provoking to any reader, however familiar you may be with his work.

 
A Portrait of the Artist

Our odyssey begins with the early childhood of Joyce’s first literary counterpart, Stephen Dedalus. Portrait presents his experience entirely in its own terms, beginning:

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo…

His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.

He was baby tuckoo. The moocow came down the road where Betty Byrne lived; she sold lemon plat.

In these charming lines, Joyce conveys the direct sense of what it is to be a young child – this is a technique he will develop much further in Ulysses.

“When you wet the bed first it is warm then it gets cold. His mother put on the oilsheet. That had a queer smell.” How did he remember this?

When we read these words, we first notice his technique, because it is always the most striking feature about his writing. But something deeper is at work here, too, and we have to tease it out of the story with careful attention. Notice that here at the beginning, our first glimmer of childish awareness is shaped by a story reflecting who he is, and told by his father – he is baby tuckoo.

Blink and you might miss it, but many of the key themes of his corpus are right there – the father and the son, human consciousness, narrative, language, and even whimsy and play. Readers familiar with his work may think of the more complex relationship of Leopold Bloom to Ulysses, or of this, from Finnegans Wake: “The fall … of a once wallstrait oldparr [Finnegan] is retaled early in bed and later on life down through all christian minstrelsy.”

The process by which experience becomes story and story becomes experience is Joyce’s central preoccupation, as his work chronicles in every conceivable register.

For our primary consideration of this work I’d like to look at this interesting passage, in which young Dedalus has gone to study at Clongowes Jesuit boy’s school, perhaps six or seven years old:

Father Arnall came in and the Latin lesson began and he remained still, leaning on the desk with his arms folded. Father Arnall gave out the themebooks and he said that they were scandalous and that they were all to be written out again with the corrections at once. But the worst of all was Fleming’s theme because the pages were stuck together by a blot: and Father Arnall held it up by a corner and said it was an insult to any master to send him up such a theme. Then he asked Jack Lawton to decline the noun mare and Jack Lawton stopped at the ablative singular and could not go on with the plural.

–You should be ashamed of yourself, said Father Arnall sternly. You, the leader of the class!

Then he asked the next boy and the next and the next. Nobody knew. Father Arnall became very quiet, more and more quiet as each boy tried to answer and could not. But his face was blacklooking and his eyes were staring though his voice was so quiet. Then he asked Fleming and Fleming said that the word had no plural. Father Arnall suddenly shut the book and shouted at him:

–Kneel out there in the middle of the class. You are one of the idlest boys I have ever met!

Now, underlying this amusing episode is something important, for mare is the Latin word for sea. The sea is a key image for Joyce that suggests the universal wellspring of our being – the undifferentiated base from which all things come and to which all things return.

As the book goes on, we will learn that the problem for young Dedalus, like his mythological namesake, is that he is trapped in a labyrinth – in this case, a labyrinth of political and religious squabbles that endlessly divert his countrymen into merely provincial concerns, cutting them off from the rest of the world and from their own inner resources. And like his namesake, he will forge the wings that carry him out of the labyrinth and over the sea to Europe.

Odysseus is, of course, trapped at sea, unable to return home, and Ulysses examines the movement of the individual ego across the tides of experience. That book begins with Dedalus, now a young man, having breakfast with his intellectual rival, Buck Mulligan, on top of an old stone tower they’ve rented out, overlooking the Irish sea. When their conversation turns to the Greeks, his interlocutor breaks in with “Ah, Dedalus, the Greeks! I must teach you. You must read them in the original. Thalatta! Thalatta! She is our great sweet mother.”

Thalatta is Greek for sea, and here Mulligan is quoting Xenophon’s Anabasis, a true account of a Greek mercenary army that was trapped far behind Persian lines and had to fight their way through hundreds of miles to friendly territory. (Incidentally, this story was the inspiration of Sol Yurick’s novel and the film The Warriors). When the weary Greek troops at last reach the sea and realize they’ve made it, the host cries out as one “Thalatta! Thalatta!” This is stirring stuff, linking the sight of the sea with safety and homecoming, release from captivity, and exultation.

This line is parodied again and again in Finnegans Wake. For example, when we’re dealing with an incriminating letter about our hero HCE, we get “The letter! The litter!” and so forth.

In the gorgeous final pages of that work, Anna Livia Plurabelle, who is identified with the River Liffey, flows back through Dublin and into the sea beyond. She cries out “Sea! Sea!,” as the dawn light rises, and the image of homecoming is, for the first time in his work, named in plain English.

And it’s old and old it’s sad and old it’s sad and weary I go back to you, my cold father, my cold mad father, my cold mad feary father, till the near sight of the mere size of him, the moyles and moyles of it, monanoaning, makes me seasilt saltsick and I rush, my only, into your arms.

Circling back to our early pages in Portrait – Fleming’s offense was to snidely protest that mare has no plural. Taken in the light of the sea’s manifold importance for Joyce, we can see that this isn’t just an act of rebellion, it’s an act of heresy. And it is punished as such, much as Joyce would be punished for this very heresy for much of his life, seeing the publication of Portrait delayed for ten years, and several editions of Ulysses confiscated and destroyed.

This minor incident calls our attention to the relationship of individual beliefs to the universal ground out of which they arise, and Joyce takes the reader on a thrilling intellectual journey that illustrates precisely how that process occurs, and how it directs human life, imbuing it with a secret and mysterious dimension of significance and value. Joyce’s movement is always through the individual forms of literature and culture and out to the universal basis from which they arise.

 
Ulysses

Portrait deals with Dedalus’s process of awakening to his vocation as an artist, and ends with his conviction to go forth from Ireland and “to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my own soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” So no one will accuse Joyce of an excess of humility.

Ulysses finds his journey interrupted, as his short stay in Paris was cut short by the death of his mother from cancer. He has gone back to Ireland and is now somewhat trapped. As a result, he sinks behind the tower walls of his self-identity as a heretic artist, constantly defending his ego against perceived attacks.

His early morning peregrinations take him to the sea, where he walks along the beach and meditates on the hidden sources of experience. A boat trawls the sea for the body of a drowned man, lost nine days earlier. In Stephen’s meandering mind, this poor fellow becomes identified with the drowned king of alchemical lore, and with the drowned father-king of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Walking back into the city, he glances over his shoulder, and in a striking epiphany, sees behind him a silent ship.

Now, this ship, we will learn later in the book, is a merchant vessel carrying a passenger named Odysseus Pseudangelos.

As is well known, this book takes as its governing structure Homer’s Odyssey, and here we have Stephen paired with Odysseus’ son Telemachus, setting out in search of his father. The father-principle that he seeks is Leopold Bloom, who embodies an older, more settled, and more compassionate side of Joyce’s character, who may suggest an antidote to the fierce egoism that keeps Dedalus cut off from people.

So we have that story going on. Rather than attempt to chart the long course of the delightful book, I’d like to look briefly at its method, to shed some light on what this book is doing on a deeper level, and how it extends the line of Joyce’s project.

Joyce tells this story primarily with what he called “interior monolog,” the idea being that he is presenting, as it were, an exact transcript of the thoughts that pass through his characters’ heads as they go about life. Now, this introduces some significant difficulties for the reader, because it is often difficult to know purely on that basis what exactly is happening. Important information about setting and the identities of characters is not always clearly indicated or foregrounded for the reader’s attention, so most of us need to rely on the help of secondary literature to be sure we catch the basic facts of the story.

That’s the heavy lifting we have to do to read Joyce, but the payoff is huge. Once you get the swing of how it works, you’re presented with an immediacy of experience that is unlike anything else I’ve ever read.

On a deeper level, by presenting a record of human experience in “real time,” as it were, Joyce is able to illuminate the nature of human experience on a deep level. A simple example from the “Lotus Eaters” chapter will illustrate what I have in mind, I believe.

It’s ten AM, and Leopold Bloom has some time to kill, after breakfast and before the eleven o’clock funeral of an acquaintance. He’s strolling about town on his way to the post office, where he will see if he has any post from a woman with whom he’s been having an flirtatious correspondence. He’s hiding a card he will use to claim her letter in his hat.

In Westland row he halted before the window of the Belfast and Oriental Tea Company and read the legends of leadpapered packets: choice blend, finest quality, family tea. Rather warm. Tea. Must get some from Tom Kernan. Couldn’t ask him at a funeral, though. While his eyes still read blandly he took off his hat quietly inhaling his hairoil and sent his right hand with slow grace over his brow and hair. Very warm morning. Under their dropped lids his eyes found the tiny bow of the leather headband inside his high grade ha. Just there. His right hand came down into the bowl of his hat. His fingers found quickly a card behind the headband and transferred it to his waistcoat pocket.

So warm. His right hand one more slowly went over his brow and hair. Then he put on his hat again, relieved: and read again: choice blend, made of the finest Ceylon brands. The far east. Lovely spot it must be: the garden of the world, big lazy leaves to float on, cactuses, flowery meads, snaky lianas they call them. Wonder is it like that. Those Cinghalese lobbing about in the sun in dolce far niente, not doing a hand’s turn all day. Sleep six months of twelve. Too hot to quarrel. Influence of the climate. Lethargy. Flowers of idleness. The air feeds most. Azotes. Hothouse in Botanic gardens. Sensitive plants. Waterlilies. Petals too tired to. Sleeping sickness in the air. Walk on roseleaves.”

The chapters of Ulysses correspond more or less to episodes in Homer’s Odyssey. This episode corresponds to Odysseus’ run-in with the lotus-eaters, a tribe of islanders who spend their lives in a drug-induced fantasia. In this chapter, the psychedelic haze corresponds to the late morning heat, the racy game of flirting with infidelity, and images of fragrant fruits, perfumes, and flowers.

This chain of association is kicked off by his daydream at the tea shop, and gradually takes shape in his mind as a plan to visit the baths, where he burbles down with his lemon-scented soap, in a fantasy or simulacrum of the verdant paradise he imagines.

As you read the passage above, you can follow his drifting stream of attention, guiding his thoughts in a blend of ideas and associations, moving in counterplay with sensations and images, and ultimately directing him to take action. You know, he thinks, a bath WOULD be nice.

This is how Ulysses functions, in a nutshell. It directly illustrates the mechanics by which our associative, symbol-using minds create experience and meaning out of the flowing river of impressions and thoughts. This directed flow of interpreted energies directs our lives and give them shape and order. At a trivial level, the process leads a man from the window of the tea shop to the baths. But on a deeper level, these dynamics guide Dedalus toward the father-image he desperately needs – one who can bring him out of his self-imposed isolation and help him break through the walls he has built around his own humanity.

The relationship to Homer in this book is not a device – it is a template for analyzing the role of myth and symbol in unconsciously directing the significant episodes of our lives. Myth is born out of, and feeds back into, this process, in one “endless vicus of recirculation.”

 
Finnegans Wake

We have been flowing with Joyce’s work toward the sea, as it were – first, by charting the process of individuation in Portrait, as Dedalus develops a mature ego, and then through the process of breaking through that ego into a living relationship with the world, as we see in Ulysses.

Finnegans Wake takes us even further, using dream consciousness as a framework for plunging deeper into the symbolic unconscious that we previously explored from the day-side. In this work, the organizing symbols themselves take the center stage as characters, and we view the panoply of human history in terms of recurring motifs which organize our experience of the chaotic and protean stuff of life.

Finnegans Wake is, I believe, Joyce’s masterpiece, at times overpowering in its raw beauty and majesty. I can only compare its magnificent final pages to the conclusion of Paradiso in terms of its effect. But Dante was an author of the High Middle Ages, who articulated the beatific vision in the language of abstraction and other-worldliness, while Joyce presents his profound spiritual insights in terms of the world. The eternal hero-journey is reflected in individual lives as they are lived by real human beings, and the realm of this realization is not the remote and starry Empyrean, but the streets of Dublin. His characters marry and have children; they are men who doubt themselves and suffer through their jobs, and women of the middle class. It is a revelation for our times.

In the background of this book is the proto-story of Finnegan, who, as we learn from the old American-Irish ballad (lyrics), fell off the ladder and died while working a construction job. His friends threw him a lively wake, which broke out into a brawl. When whiskey was spilled on his body in the ensuing fracas, he sprang back to life and joined the party.

We can, on one level, read this as a book-length version of that song, exploded onto a gargantuan stage, in which the whole of human history is played out at the wake, centered around the never-ending process of the rise and fall.

As we noted earlier, Finnegan’s fall “is retaled early in bed and later on life down through all christian minstrelsy.” This is, in a sense, the story that stands behind the unfolding of history, told and retold in a thousand myths and songs, great and small, about death and resurrection. Here the story plays out on a domestic scale as the adventures of a family consisting of an English innkeeper named Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, his wife Anna Livia, twin sons Shaun and Shem, and a little daughter Izzy.

The Wake is legendary for its obscurity, running throughout with composite words, multilingual puns, and passages which can be read in six or nine ways. At a glance it seems nigh incomprehensible, and many readers never give it a second glance. But I am certain that Joseph Campbell was correct when he claimed that there is not one meaningless syllable in the entire book. Coming to terms with it is simply a matter of doing what you can, and with the aid of the copious secondary literature available, it is quite manageable.

Let’s take an early passage and try to get a sense of how it works. To set the scene – we have just been taken on a tour of a history museum, with relics of various battles and invasions of Ireland, and are now being directed by the guide out (mind your head please) and back into history unfolding.

(Stoop) if you are abcdedminded, to this claybook, what curios of signs (please stoop), in this allaphbed! Can you rede (since We and Thou had it out already) its world? It is the same told of all. Many. Miscegenations on miscegenations. Tieckle. They lived und laughed ant loved end left. Forsin. Thy thingdome is given to Meades and Porsons. The meandertale, aloss and again, of our old Heidenburgh in the days when Head-in-Clouds walked the earth. In the ignorance that implies impression that knits knowledge that finds the nameform that whets the wits that convey contacts that sweeten sensation that drives desire that adheres to attachment that dogs death that bitches birth that entails the ensuance of existentiality.

To make sense of any passage in Finnegans Wake you have to begin by noting some of the wordplay at work – I’ll give you what I can of the key ideas. Rede is an English/German pun, meaning read (English) and speak (German) – here we are read/speaking the “claybook” of the world. We have a reference to the Medes and the Persians, two civilizations that fought over the territory of Iran in ancient times. An allusion the Neanderthal and then the so-called Heidelberg Man, Homo heidelbergensis, another precursor to Homo sapiens. And then, we have an ingenious presentation of the Buddhist doctrine of the Twelve Links of Dependent Arising, which traces out the process by which consciousness, through the afflictive emotions of hate and longing, shapes our experience of the world, and we become ensnared in the eternal unraveling of existence in a never-ending cycle.

With those comments as our guide, we can read this passage as a description of the process by which the story-making mind gives shape to historical experience. We come out of the alphabet-bed of experience and read/speak the word (if you’re going to be so subject/object-y about it), and out of this flows life. The images of myth and art are the stuff out of which our authorship of experience stems, leading from consciousness to engagement and through the various links to the on-flowing of time and being.

In a later passage we get “Anna was, Livia is, Plurabelle’s to be. Northmen’s thing made southfolk’s place but howmulty plurators made eachone in person? Latin me that, my trinity scholard, out of eure sanscreed into oure Eryan!”

Pausing only to note that “Eryan” is a composite of Irish and Aryan, here we find a comparison of Joyce’s method to the scholastic interrogation of Trinitarian doctrine, a notoriously intractable intellectual problem. Joyce tauntingly observes that his project of exploring the plurality of all things as reflections of one another and of the common base is far more difficult than explicating the consubstantiality of the three persons of the Trinity.

We have already examined the mechanics of this process in Ulysses, but now we are seeing it from the other side, as it were. We’ve arrived at an analysis of the basic problem in terms of the images themselves, which here take on their own directing force and agency. They have become players in human affairs, acting out their patterns again and again: “They lived und laughed ant loved end left.”

And then we come round again to start the play anew. “Hohohoho, Mister Finn, you’re going to be Mister Finnagain! Comeday morm and, O, you’re vine! Sendday’s eve and, ah, you’re vinegar! Hahahaha, Mister Funn, you’re going to be fined again!”

The laughter is not accidental – it’s central. The refrain of our ballad of Tom Finnegan is “Lots of fun at Finnegan’s Wake,” and this connects directly to an aspect of Joyce’s work we haven’t looked at much – the doctrine of affirmation.

Joyce’s constant reply to this whole bungled comedy of unfolding experience with all of its disasters is to hold it with clarity and compassion. His ability to hold history honestly, and with an expansive and warm humanity, is one of the greatest achievements of his work.

But all rivers lead to the sea, and, I note with a deep pang, Joyce had signaled his intention to write a sequel to the Wake, which was to have been a short, lucid statement of its manifold themes. Tragically, his life was cut short at the age of fifty-eight. His final book was intended to be the crowning work that would unify all that he had done before. We know very little about what he had intended, except that it was to have been about the sea.

Written by Mesocosm

June 4, 2014 at 8:40 am

Posted in Literature

2001, Strauss, and Nietzsche

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2001

Note: spoilers ahead, if you haven’t seen 2001 – but if you haven’t, for heaven’s sake, go see it at once.

**

If I ask you to think about Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

Chances are very good that the answer is Richard Strauss’s tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra, and for good reason. Kubrick’s use of the piece is dramatically and conceptually impeccable, and points us toward Nietzsche’s work as the key to understanding much of the film’s enigmatic richness.

When you recollect the tone poem, you most likely hear it’s unforgettable fanfare-like opening statement. These opening notes encode Strauss’s musical conception of the revelation brought down from the mountain to ordinary men by Nietzsche’s philosopher-hero, Zarathustra, who teaches of a creative life that pours forth from our own souls, and does not come to us from outside, or from the heavens.

Strauss’s theme consists a procession starting at C major and then ascending by the most consonant intervals in Western harmony, rising first by a perfect fifth, then a perfect fourth, then a major third followed quickly by a minor third. The whole psycho-acoustical mystery of Western harmony which has dazzled great minds with its implications of an intrinsic natural order since the time of Pythagoras is stated musically in those notes.

I suggest that Kubrick intended that structure to serve as a musical counterpart to the monolith of his film. Remember that the monolith is described as extending perfectly in proportion of 1 : 4 : 9.

Strauss’s music is paired most effectively with the appearance of monolith in the film. So what connects the central mysteries of Kubrick’s film with Nietzsche’s great work?

I suggest the primary answer is to be found in the section titled “Of the Three Transformations of the Spirit.” In this short chapter, Zarathustra tells his companions a parable of the three transformations of the spirit, by which individuals become capable of truly creative acts. First the spirit becomes a camel, then the camel becomes a lion, and then the lion becomes a child.

In the first transformation, the spirit kneels down like a camel asking to be laden down with a heavy burden, so that it can exult in its own strength. It takes upon itself all of the tasks that it deems most difficult and speeds off into the solitary desert.

In the desert the camel becomes a lion, whose task is to “utter a holy No” when it encounters the great monster opposing creative work: a golden dragon with the words “Thou Shalt” written on every scale. The dragon embodies a thousand years of social and moral law.

“All values have already been created, and all created values am I,” says the dragon. “Truly, there is no more ‘I will,’ to be spoken!”

The lion is up to the task. “Keep your laws,” it says (to paraphrase Nietzsche), “I have my own vision of life and of value, and if you don’t like it, you can stuff yourself.”

When the dragon lies dead at the lion’s feet, then comes the third transformation, whereby the lion becomes a child, capable of its own creation. What is this child?

starchild

“Innocence is the child, and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a wheel rolling out of itself, a first movement, a holy Yes-saying.

“Indeed, to play the game of creation, my brothers, requires a holy Yes.”

This is great stuff. I especially love this phrase aus sich rollendes Rad, a wheel turning out of its own center.

With respect to Kubrick’s film, I submit that it is divided into a prolog, followed by three primary movements. The prolog consists of pre-human anthropods doing their monkey business, until they stumble upon the monolith, that mysterious payload of transcendence, which either elicits or reflects their discovery of their human capacity to imagine and create.

Now human, they turn to their first creative task, building tools and weapons. This is the work of the camel, loosely associated with a lower order of creativity, and it lasts from the dawn of human history until our next encounter with the monolith, near Tycho Station on the moon.

Now we enter into the second phase of the film, aboard the big space camel speeding out into the solitary desert of outer space, driven by HAL 9000, the very embodiment of the law. A brilliant satirical statement by Kubrick, to depict the murderous inhumanity of human society as a computer. Joseph Campbell once observed that the god of computers is a lot like the god of the Old Testament – a lot of rules, and no mercy.

Our human explorers are in the hands of HAL, who is of two natures: paternal and mechanically-life-sustaining, but murderous when crossed. This is Kubrick’s conception of “Thou shalts,” and a similar concept of society may be seen in his other films such as A Clockwork Orange or Paths of Glory.

Incidentally, if you haven’t seen his lesser-known Paths of Glory, I emphatically recommend it – it’s truly one of my favorite films.

But I digress. David’s task in this second phase of the human journey is to slay the dragon, as it were, which he does (“Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do….”), and then pilots the ship on to its destination by his own initiative and resources.

So begins the third and final stage of the film, corresponding to the third transformation of the spirit. The Star Child that ends the film doesn’t seem quite so enigmatic now, does it?

Written by Mesocosm

April 12, 2014 at 3:09 pm

Posted in Film

Tagged with , ,

Digital Humanism; a Response to Byung-Chul Han

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Fernsehturm Berlin

Fernsehturm Berlin

I’ve been reading the German social theorist Byung-Chul Han’s critique of digital culture with interest since I first stumbled upon his arresting concept of the Transparency Society, of which he is not a fan. I wrote about the Transparency Society here, but to briefly recap, the term refers to a culture of digital disclosure and mutual voyeurism that embraces openness and connectedness as intrinsic goods. In Han’s analysis, this leads to a devaluation of true intimacy and connection, which require an interplay of disclosure and concealment.

As a guy who works in Menlo Park for one of Han’s favorite targets of criticsm, it’s valuable for me to engage with a forceful critic of the new model openness, which he associates with social media and Big Data in the US and with the fringe Pirate Party at home.

When Han declines to differentiate between different forms of exposure – for example, between voluntary self-disclosure in social media and government surveillance – this signals his intentional flattening of the various conditions by which societies become transparent to technology. This strategy reflects what I believe to be a staunchly anti-humanist philosophy.

What do I mean by anti-humanism? Han is interested in the ways that information networks constrain and shape human action and experience, which puts him in the lineage of Continental anti-humanists including Derrida and Foucault.

Foucault’s career was dominated by his interest in the ways in which individual subjectivity is molded by social discourse, particularly discourses of alterity and power, into which we are assimilated and by which we perceive and value the world.

Derrida focused on deconstructing the European metaphysical tradition, especially its prejudice in favor of presence, which has historically been regarded as the ideal, pure forms of being, as opposed to contingency, lack, and absence, which are negative states of imperfection.

Han’s debt to these critiques is clear. In his fascinating book Abwesen, he contrasts Western and Eastern modes of metaphysical discourse, citing Derrida’s critique of the metaphysics of presence and contrasting it to the Buddhist and Taoist concepts of emptiness and non-action. While the Platonist conceives of ultimate reality in terms of an everlasting and pure realm of being, the canonical expression of ultimate reality in China and Japan is the sage who embodies its realization. Such a sage is frequently depicted as a wanderer without a home, who leaves no trace. This ideal sage is mobile, embodied, enigmatic, and composed of the play of light and shadow.

This strategy of valuing the hidden, the absent, and the transitory is central to Han’s critique of Transparency Society, which he diagnoses as a classical expression of the Western inability to tolerate these “impure” states. The voyeur has an insatiable need to know, to unmask, and to unconceal, and thus devours the hours reading news and paging through Facebook updates and microblogs.

By this unmasking, the spirit of the encounter is lost, and wisdom is exchanged for the accumulation of facts. Other casualties of the Transparency Society include theory and ideology.

Han persuasively argues in his “Digital Rationality and the End of Communicative Action” that online political activism is post-ideological. Because of its characteristic methods of interaction, the Internet does not give rise to collective ideology or the formation of mass political parties. You may see mass action rising out of the Internet, but we have not yet seen real mass movements, because the Internet fractures discourse and exerts a “centrifugal” pressure by which individuals increasingly speak in isolation to micro-audiences. This does not encourage the formulation of mass ideology, or support the development of long-term political platforms.

Although Han makes this argument on a theoretical level, it’s worth noting that this closely agrees with the findings of sociologists examining the role of social media in the Occupy movement as well as mass protests in places like Egypt, Tunisia, and Turkey. It’s beyond the scope of this post to analyze that point in depth, but I can refer to a few examples.

I was struck earlier this year, when reading about massive protests in São Paulo, when the Guardian had this to say:

Lucio Flavio Rodrigues de Almeida, a sociology professor at the Catholic University of São Paulo, said the authorities had so far responded only with repressive actions against protests that had morphed in character and size and were being organized by an amorphous social network rather than political parties. (emphasis added)

This is just what we find in similar cases – political action is triggered by a catalyzing event, such as an AdBusters campaign, or protests over bus fares, which avalanche into massive, loosely-organized protests reflecting variety of complaints, often having little relationship to the initial cause of the action. Where such movements fail is their recurring inability to consolidate a sustained platform, or to create mechanisms for long-term advocacy.

In short, we have sound empirical evidence that Internet-based political activism has indeed thus far been post-ideological, in Han’s sense. Let’s have a closer look at how he uses this concept.

In “Digital Rationality,” Han cites a notorious screed by Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson called The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete. This widely-criticized opinion piece argues that with the rise of Big Data, we no longer need to look for underlying principles, because we no longer need to understand – we have enough data simply to act on the basis of correlation, and we can leave theorizing to philosophers and children.

There is now a better way. Petabytes allow us to say: “Correlation is enough.” We can stop looking for models. We can analyze the data without hypotheses about what it might show. We can throw the numbers into the biggest computing clusters the world has ever seen and let statistical algorithms find patterns where science cannot.

Big Data, then, destroys synthetic linkages that organize individual actors into political parties, and that organize individual data points into theory. The overall movement is simultaneously one of aggregation and fragmentation.

Han recently published an opinion piece for Die Zeit called Data-ism and Nihilism, which inspired me to collect my thoughts and to write this response. He briefly summarizes a number of the points I’m recounting here, and reads the post-ideological stance of Big Data as a new form of nihilism, in Nietzsche’s colorful sense of the term – that is, as the character of a degenerate culture that is incapable of positing and realizing its own sense of value from out of its own creative potentialities.

Han’s Data-ism is a culture of facts without meaning, of iPhone confessionals, in which dazed wanderers interpret the Delphic Oracle’s “Know thyself” as an injunction to post their weight automatically to Facebook with newfangled watches. It’s fragmentary and alienating, but at the same time is intolerant of distance or unknowing. It is a dark digital age.

**

In reading this editorial, I came to realize that my interest in Han was born largely out of honing my own perspective in stark contrast to his critique, and this leads me to posit and argue for a counter-balancing position that I’ll call digital humanism.

I like the way that Han brings Derrida’s critique of the metaphysics of presence into dialog with Buddhism and Taoism, and I find him to be a sensitive and cogent expositor of texts, even if he is not a profound theoretician. And I find his critique of techno-culture refreshing, surrounded as I am by so-called futurists, technology optimists and Utopians. The further you get from Silicon Valley, it seems, the more critical and conservative you find the prevailing attitudes about Internet culture. Stuart Brand, Ray Kurzweil and Mark Zuckerberg are of California, while Han is of Western Europe.

Where I differ sharply with Han is his anti-humanist posture. In Han’s account, technology is not a means to human ends; it is something that happens to people, like the weather. It shapes and binds us to certain channels and procedures, but it doesn’t liberate us or put us into contact with knowledge or ideas.

This is only half of the dialectic, and by studiously ignoring the uses to which intentional actors put technology makes a caricature of modern digital culture.

My own studies of culture, philosophy, and history have been enormously augmented by information technology. The gains are so pervasive and profound, it would be an exercise in the obvious to catalog them. I’ll just note as one of countless examples that the free, instantaneous availability of several German newspapers allowed me to discover Han’s critiques, and this blog is where I can publicly respond.

If Han can only regard media culture in the light of its systemic effects and its constraints on human agents, and he can make no allowance for human agency or design, then surely we must ask, who is the nihilist here?

As a counterpoint to the digital anti-humanism that Han embraces, I suggest a digital humanism, which values technology insofar as it is a means to legitimate and moral human purposes.

There is a long tradition among European intellectuals of demonizing technology, visible in the work of theorists such as Marx, Weber, Adorno, Horkheimer, and Heidegger. But technology can liberate as well as bind, and can open as well as close. Technology is not a mere accidental accretion of human civilization, it is a product and tool of human endeavor and deliberation. It cannot be analyzed in a vacuum, disregarding the uses to which it is put.

We can critique technology without rejecting human agency and value, just as we can value technology without subcoming to blind Utopianism. It begins by reflectively evaluating our own values and needs, and considering the uses to which we put technology in our own lives.

Know thy digital self, and monitor where your hours go.

Written by Mesocosm

October 1, 2013 at 4:17 pm

The shamanic heart still beats in Europe

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CAPTION

Pelzmärtle, by Charles Fréger

The April 2013 issue of National Geographic contains a stunning article by Rachel Hartingan Shea called “Europe’s Wild Men.” It describes a project by photographer Charles Fréger, who spent two winters traveling around Europe to document a spectacular array of winter festival costumes. Collected in his book Wilder Mann, these images reveal the dark vitality of ancient, pre-Christian mythic rites that live on in European celebrations, year after year.

This fellow to the right, for example, is the German character Pelzmärtle (or Pelzmärtel), who appears at your door with the Christ Child on the eve of Saint Nicholas’ Day in the village of Bad Herrenalb, “to scold naughty children and wrap them with a stick.” The elaborate straw costume is sewed onto its wearer. Then Pelzmärtle makes his way through the town, traveling from travels from door to door and ringing the bell with hoots and hollers.

Compare this tradition to the Hopi Powamu Bean Planting Ceremony, described Erna Fergusson in her book Dancing Gods. This elaborate eight-day festival celebrates the return of the Kachina gods to the pueblo with a series of dances and precessions of figures in magnificent costumes (we looked at a related Zuni festival in this earlier post). Fergusson describes the action as follows:

Late on the fifth night Hahawuaqi, “mother of the terrifying monsters,” appears upon the kiva roof and announces in her weird falsetto call that she has arrived and wishes to see the children. An answering voice responds that the children have all gone to bed and urges her to postpone her visit until morning. Thus are the children warned of the presence of the horrible and thrilling beings who bring gifts for good children and punishment for naughty ones. It must fill with trepidation many a little brown Hopi snuggled into blankets and fearfully eager for the coming day.

Yet the monsters and their mother do not emerge until late afternoon, when they appear in procession. The mother, a man, leading, wears the black dress and a white mantle and leggings. Her mask is a flat black face, with hair in pigtails such as the women wear, feathers raying from the crown, and a fox-skin ruff. She carries a long Juniper whip, a whitened dipper, and a flat tray covered with gifts for the children: ears of corn, seeds, and bundles of sticks for little girls, and tiny snares of yucca fiber for little boys. The other woman figure, Soyokmana, is such a terrifying old witch as every people in the world seems to have invented to scare children into virtue. She is dressed like the “mother,” but her hair is straggling, her clothes are old and dirty, and she carries a crook in one hand and a knife in the other. The others (Natacka) usually appear in Navajo velvet shirts, belted around slim waists with heavy silver belts, and with white buckskin mantles over the shoulders. They all wear terrifying masks: great snouts, bulging eyes, and horns. Each carries a bow and arrows in his left hand, leaving the right hand free to receive gifts, for this is a begging expedition.

There are three such groups, one for each village. They visit every house in their own village, and every house in the other two villages into which one of their men has married. For in Hopiland the custom still lingers of a man’s going to his wife’s people. So one meets them everywhere, hooting as they pass along the crooked streets and as the “mother” calls at every door or at the top of every ladder. Her queer cry always brings out women with food or children to be admonished. Children cling to their mothers or to each other, bright black eyes peering bravely over blanket folds, or they stand sturdily to face the fearful being, determinedly not afraid. (1)

It is impossible not to be forcefully reminded of such traditions looking at the array of unnerving costumes so marvelously captured by Fréger.

The full photo gallery is viewable here.

 
References
1) Fergusson E. Dancing Gods; Indian Ceremonials of New Mexico and Arizona. The University of New Mexico Press. 1931. pp.127-8.

Written by Mesocosm

April 28, 2013 at 10:54 am

Heiner Müller on “Hamlet Machine,” 1977

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“I want to live in my veins, in the marrow of my bones, in the labyrinth of my skull.” – Die Hamletmaschine

The following is my original translation of German playwright Heiner Müller’s reflections on the composition of his play “Hamlet Machine,” drawn from his autobiography War Without Slaughter; A Life under Two Dictatorships. For my analysis of the play, see Heiner Müller’s “Hamlet Machine”.

There is very little available on Müller’s work in English, so I hope this will be a useful reference for interested readers. The play itself available here (English, PDF), und hier (auf Deutsch).

Mauzer-Hamlet_masina

Heiner Müller: When the year 1977 began, I was hanging around in Bulgaria again. I had filled an entire Bulgarian schoolbook with notes, drafts, and sketches of pieces. And just across from the highrise where Ginka had a flat stood the biggest power plant in Sofia, the “Traicho Kostov.”

Traicho Kostov was the Bulgarian equivalent of [László] Rajk. [László Rajk was a Hungarian Communist who was persecuted in Stalinist show trials and then executed in 1949.] Kostov was executed during the great purges.

Kostov had been Secretary under [Georgi] Dimitrov. According to the Bulgarian interpretation, Dimitrov was killed during “medical procedures” in Moscow. He had been in talks with [Yugoslavian autocrat] Tito about leading a Balkan Federation. Then he became ill and flew to Moscow for the better medical facilities, and there he died. Then the trials started up, in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, in the USSR, in Poland. That was the beginning of the 50s.

In Bulgaria, Traicho Kostov was the designated agent of imperialism. He was the only one of them who hadn’t made a confession, so they just had him killed, because they had become impatient and time was marching on. And after the Rehabilitation, this central power plant was named after him.

I had been planning for a long time to write a piece on Hamlet. I was interested in writing a version in which Hamlet was the son of a Rajk, Slansky, or Kostov. I didn’t know much about Kostov before – I knew a bit more about Rajk. That was the best-known case. Hamlet comes home from his father’s state funeral, and he has to carry on. Hamlet in Budapest. I envisioned a two-hundred-page work to lay out the whole problem.

Then I came back to Berlin, and [the Swiss director Benno] Besson wanted to stage Hamlet, and he asked me if I could translate it in four weeks, because that’s when he had to start. I said it wasn’t going to happen in four weeks, so he asked “What is the best translation?” I told him the one by Dresen and Hamburger would be the best. The performance I had seen in Greifswald was very good, and it also led to Dresen coming to the Deutsche Theater [in Berlin].

Besson had already started rehearsals with that translation. Matthias Langhoff was the director’s assistant because it interested him. He kept coming by with questions for me from Besson. This or that passage didn’t work, so I should change it.

In the meantime, Langhoff became bored by the rehearsals and was happy when we got together to work on the text. Then it became more and more a new translation. The actors couldn’t learn the new script fast enough, and for the dress rehearsal they delivered a composite of the old and new translations. Subsequently there was a plagiarism lawsuit.

Anyway, when I was finished with the translation, I saw my own plan in a new light. Then came this new nine-page work very quickly, “Hamlet Machine,” like a shrunken head.

I had already noticed in Bulgaria that it would be impossible to create dialog out of this material, if we were to travel into the world of so-called actual Socialism-Stalinism. It was a place where there was no dialog any longer. I had already seen, again and again, that it didn’t work, there was no dialog, only blocks of monolog, and that shrank the entirety down to this text. The theme of Budapest in 1956 also produced no dialog.

Caption

Naked Man with Knife
Jackson Pollock, c 1940

The history of the RAF, also material for the play, was [likewise] a single breakneck monolog. [The RAF, or Red Army Faction, was a far-left terrorist group led by the radical activist Andreas Baader and former journalist Ulrike Meinhof.]

After a failed action against the Spiegel [newspaper] offices, the Baader Group, along with Ulrike Meinhof, threw the furniture out the window of the apartment she shared with her husband, the editor-in-chief of Konkret. The destruction of the bourgeois life context, the withdrawal from the bourgeois life and the entry into illegality – that interested me.

[During Ophelia’s long monolog near the beginning of the play, she states “I smash the tools of my captivity, the chair the table the bed. I destroy the battlefield that was my home.” (1)]

Then there was the echo of Charles Manson. The final movement [of Ophelia’s monolog in “Hamet Machine”] is from Susan Atkins, member of his “family,” one of the murderers of Sharon Tate, who was famous for her “scaring phone calls.” One was cited in Life. I had read about it in Bulgaria by coincidence – in Bulgaria I depended on coincidence, when it came to reading. The sentence was “When she walks through your bedrooms carrying butcher knives, you’ll know the truth.” [This line, spoken by Ophelia, ends the play.]

I had no title for the text. Betty Weber, a German scholar from Texas, had a plan to publish one volume with [the prominent German publisher] Suhrkamp, with my attempt withs and at Shakespeare. So we had to find a title, and through Andy Warhol I came up with “Shakespeare Factory.” That brought me back to Duchamp’s “Bachelor Machine,” and to “Hamlet Machine” as the work’s title.

The Suhrkamp project failed, because it was essential to me to have the photo in there, of Ulrike Meinhof down from the gallows. [Meinhof was found hanged in her prison cell before her trial concluded in 1976.] Unseld said “That’s not possible, that cannot appear in my publishing house.” For me it was a point of honor. That’s why it didn’t appear in Suhrkamp.

One can make many things of “Hamlet Machine.” First of all, the impossibility of using dialog in this material certainly signifies stagnation. And if nothing occurs on the male plane, the women must come up with something. And so forth. Lenin always said, the Movement comes from the provinces, and woman is the province of man.

The machine metaphor may have something to do with the factory opposite the place in Sofia, too. I would have not have been able to write the piece without the trip to America – certainly, not without the travel to the west. Deleuze and Guattari’s book on Kafka was certainly important, because it dealt with the province, with the mobilization of the province. Criminality is also a province.

“Hamlet Machine” was not staged with Hamlet as I had hoped, at that time. It was banned until the fall of the DDR.

It was through the aforementioned plagiarism trial that I made the acquaintance of [the prominent left-wing politician and attorney] Gregor Gysi. There was a plagiarism trial, which took place in Leipzig, brought by Dresen and Hamburger against my translation. Gysi was our lawyer, Hamburger represented himself. He said that history has shown that no one could independently produce a translation of a Shakespeare play in two months. That was completely impossible. Gysi said “That just demonstrates the brilliance of my clients.”

He won the trial.

References
1) Müller H. “Hamletmaschine”. from Hamletmaschine and Other Texts for the Stage. ed. Carl Weber. Performing Arts Journal Publications. 1984. p.54.

Written by Mesocosm

April 21, 2013 at 9:21 am

Heiner Müller’s “Hamlet Machine”

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Ophelia

Ophelia, John Everett Millais
Image by Barnaby Thieme

I throw open the doors, to let in the wind and the cry of the world. – Ophelia

Although not well known to English-speaking audiences, Heiner Müller is considered by many Germans to be a leading dramatist of the twentieth century. Many of his plays rework classical myths in a struggle to make sense of the collision between mythology and ideology in post-war Eastern Europe.

His Hamlet Machine is a postmodern masterpiece and a harrowing portrait of life under totalitarian rule. Much of the complex work consists of dramatic monologs, dense with allusions to Shakespeare’s play and other monuments of European culture and history.

The Hamlet-actor begins in Brechtian mode, aware of his own role in the ensuing drama, announcing: “I was Hamlet. I stood at the shore and talked with the surf BLAH BLAH, the ruins of Europe in back of me.” (1) These lines echo the Fisher King of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” who “sat upon the shore / Fishing, with the arid plain behind me”. (2)

Like Eliot, Müller also presents “a heap of broken images,” where mythological symbols flail like broken engines, gesturing wildly toward inhuman meanings.

In Shakespeare’s play, it will be recalled, the hero’s father fell victim to murder at his uncle’s hands, abetted by Hamlet’s complicit mother. Hamlet Machine describes the funeral thus: “The bells tolled the state-funeral, murderer and widow a couple, the councilors goose-stepping behind the highranking carcass’ coffin, bawling with badly paid grief”. (3)

Müller’s inspiration for Hamlet’s father was Traitscho Kostoff, a Bulgarian communist who was executed in a Stalinist purge. (4) Contemporary audiences may sooner think of the bizarre state funeral of Kim Jong-Il, but the subject of the allusion does not matter. While different actors play the parts, arriving on cue for their prescribed roles, the historical drama does not change. Hamlet reflects:

The set is a monument. It presents a man who made history, enlarged a hundred times. The petrification of a hope. The name is interchangeable, the hope has not been fulfilled. The monument is toppled into dust. (5)

Historical action is fixed by a small number of possibilities, pre-determined by unpersuasive narratives that bind action to violence and oppression. Even the utopian visions they nominally serve have lost the power to persuade or animate. One thinks of the playacting technocrats of Müller’s East Germany, tunelessly singing Marxist-Leninist songs.

As the play proceeds, the Hamlet-actor attempts to reject the role to which he has been consigned, refusing to go along with this murder-drama. The dramatic action breaks down, and a political demonstration explodes onto the stage, suggesting the 1967-8 student protests in Berlin.

The Hamlet-actor is swept up in the angry mob and pushed to the police lines, where, in one arresting image, he confronts his own reflection in bullet-proof glass, and sees himself facing himself from the opposite side of the line.

He responds with rage to his own complicity in totalitarianism:

Heiner Müller

Heiner Müller

I look through the double doors of bullet-proof glass at the crowd pressing forward and smell the sweat of my fear. Choking with nausea, I shake my fist at myself who stands behind the bullet-proof glass. Shaking with fear and contempt, I see myself in the crowd pressing forward, foaming at the mouth, shaking my fist at myself. (6)

He then goes home to watch television, “at one / with my undivided self.” (7) In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, inaction is a fatal flaw, but when all courses lead to murder, and the character is forced to choose between several dreadful alternatives. Inaction and action both mean self-betrayal, and purity is found only in death, or, in its political equivalent, television.

***

“I am Ophelia. The one the river didn’t keep.”

Ophelia chooses suicide instead of murder. Like Nietzsche’s ascetic, her violence turns inward, sublimating her will to power. Her character represents a type for Müller, a woman whose inflexible moral code renders her capable of anything.
 
She is the “woman dangling from a rope,” suggesting the far-left RAF terrorist Ulrike Meinhof, whose strident critique of hegemonic capitalism ignited a series of bank robberies and murders. (8) Eventually she was captured, and hung herself in her cell.

Müller’s Ophelia would also choose death as a way of dismembering the mechanisms of oppression:

I smash the tools of my captivity, the chair the table the bed. I destroy the battlefield that was my home. I fling open the doors so the wind gets in and the screams of the world. I smash the window. With my bleeding hands I tear the photos of the men I loved and who used me on the bed on the table on the chair on the ground. I set fire to my prison. (9)

Compare to Meinhof’s approving citation of Fritz Teufel’s statement that “It is still better to set fire to a department store than to run one,” written after her group set fire to a Frankfurt department store in 1968 “to protest against the apathy of society in the face of the murders in Vietnam.” (10)

***

Born in Eppendorf in 1929, Müller spent his childhood under the shadow of the Nazi regime. In “The Father,” an early autobiographical prose-poem, he describes being woken from sleep when he was three years old:

In 1933, January 31 at 4 a. m., my father, a functionary of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, was arrested from his bed. I woke up, the sky outside the window black, noise of voices and footsteps. In the next room, books were thrown to the floor. I heard my father’s voice, higher than the other voices. I climbed out of bed and went to the door. Through a crack I saw how a man was hitting my father in the face. (11)

Two officers of the Nazi SA, the predecessor to the notorious SS, took his father to a concentration camp, where he was held for over a year for his socialist activities. Müller was shunned as the son of a criminal, and other boys in his village were not allowed to play with him.

After he visited the camp with his mother, he was haunted by the image of his father diminished behind the wire mesh fence, and later, by memories of walking for hours in bitter cold to meet his father upon his release.

caption

Flandern (detail)
Franz Radziwill
Image by Barnaby Thieme

I wish my father were a shark
Who tore to pieces forty whalers
(And in their blood I had learned to swim)…. (12)

In these early memories, we find the germ of his later political views. Müller would remain a socialist for the rest of his life, though he appears to have been deeply demoralized by Stalin’s tyrannical abuses. He was tolerated as a high-profile artist of the GDR, but was also a fierce critic of his country. Hamlet Machine was banned in East Germany until its final days. (13)

Perhaps in these early memories, we also find the seeds of his feverish, fragmentary style. Hamlet Machine resembles the disjointed impressions of a child-dreamer, woken from sleep by disturbing events for which he has no context or compass.

Perhaps Müller seeks to bring his audience to that moment of his childhood, to share with them his epiphany of chaos. It may be the only truth of which he was certain.

***

“One can make many things of Hamlet Machine,” Müller said. “First of all, its unperformability certainly stands for stagnation.” (14) Indeed, the play is notoriously difficult to stage. The playwright Tony Kushner notes:

Certainly the most immediately striking fact of Müller’s dramaturgy, of all of his dramatic texts, is that they were written intentionally to resist production, to make of their production an act of appropriation. When one first encounters Müller’s plays one worries how they ‘should’ be done, one searches in vain for the key to their staging, assuming that the author has hidden such a key in the text or that it may be uncovered through some sort of anthropological investigation. Research, and learning, is required; but ultimately, familiarity with the plays’ referents and antecedents will not reveal how they are to be staged. Eventually any theater artists intent on doing Müller’s works will find themselves faced with a heady and alarming freedom, for the key to the staging must, to a far greater degree with Müller’s plays than with any other major body of dramatic work, be invented upon the occasion – by the historically informed, politically engaged imaginations of those doing the staging. (15)

This may gives a clue to the title of Müller’s play. It is sometimes taken to refer to the author himself, i.e., Hamletmaschine (HM) = Heiner Müller (HM). The author himself “carefully disseminated this interpretation.” (16)

I prefer to think of the play itself as a meaning-making machine. It runs on interpreters, directors, actors, readers, and an audience; all are free to move among its fragments, and to create something for themselves.

 
Notes
This essay originally appeared on the Modern Mythology blog here.

Heiner Müller’s play Hamlet Machine is available here (English, PDF), und hier (auf Deutsch).

 
References
1) Müller H. ed. Carl Weber. Hamletmachine and other texts for stage. Performing Arts Journal Publications. 1984. p. 53
2) Eliot T. S. “The Waste Land,” lines 423-5, from The Complete Poems and Plays; 1909-1950. Harcourt, Brace, & World. 1971. p. 50.
3) Müller, 1984. p. 53
4) Müller H. Krieg Ohne Schlacht; Leben in zwei Diktaturen. Kiepenheuer & Witsch. 1994. p. 292
5) Müller, 1984. p. 56
6) Müller, 1984. p. 56
7) Müller, 1984. p. 56
8) Müller, 1994. p. 294
9) Müller, 1984. p. 54-5
10) Meinhof U. “Setting Fire to Department Stores.” from Everybody Talks About The Weather … We Don’t; The Writings of Ulrike Meinhof. ed. Karin Bauer. Seven Stories Press. 2008. p. 248
11) Müller H. A Heiner Müller Reader. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 2001. p. 14
12) Müller, 2001. p. 15
13) Müller, 1994. p. 296
14) Müller, 1994. p. 295
15) Kushner, T. “Foreward,” from Müller, 2001. p. xvi
16) Müller, 1984. p. 51

Written by Mesocosm

April 7, 2013 at 12:14 pm

Posted in Articles