Thursday, February 07, 2008

Against Theory, As Usual

To Raphael

Modern Theatre - I

Samuel Beckett is perhaps the most well-known playwright of the 20th century. Whether his plays are liked is not relevant; what is relevant is that he is an important figure in 20th century drama. His name is also associated with the ending of modernism and the breaking of postmodernism. He is also a very solitary literary stylist, often stretching (dragging?) the art form to its limits. His later works distort the very definition of drama, in a seemingly fitting gesture.

As we have seen, it is irrelevant whether his plays are liked or not. His plays continue to be performed, and viewed as curiosities when no other interpretation seems immediately accessible to those who are evaluating them. He is, in a sense, a successful playwright in every sense of the word.

It may also be apparent by now that the author himself is not particularly sympathetic to the concerns aired by Beckett in his plays; his plays have always represented “the other,” though this might perhaps have been the very effect Beckett intended to achieve. His plays remain separate, detached in an almost unconcerned sort of way, and the characters are seen to be not only resigned to their roles (the characters are conscious that they are not real persons but are characters in a play), but they are determined to act it out in an idiosyncratic fashion. Art, in particular the stage, is not a special place, not a special occasion, in fact it is nothing special at all: it is the reason they live, and they live on the stage. Needless to say, his plays when read are very insipid. And when they are performed, they immediately suffer from a dislocation which is just as temporal as it is spatial.

This particular stance—I do not insist that this is the only correct or only possible reading of Beckett available to an unsympathetic reader (I have not watched any of his plays live, though I have watched videos of his plays being performed; this is outright torture)—opens up possibilities. And this is where I see a tendency, some bad tendencies set in motion by academia. I am perfectly sure that Beckett’s works—it is not his fault that they are called plays—are genuine works of art in their own right; when we see it within the framework—it doesn’t matter which—they crumble, and they make less sense all the time. We are forced to read Beckett’s biography—a rather detailed one—to save us from absolute incomprehensibility.

There is a tendency to classify things (which harks back to the taxonomy of Aristotle). The same general principles apply in biology as well as in art; similarities and dissimilarities and the rest of the bunk. What is apparent to the eye may be important to plants and animals; is art so easily classified? I believe art must be weighed in terms of the effects it produces. Since this is an impossible task—as we only have the tools of the scientific trade to aid us—my contention is that it is only right to let art speak for itself. I short: no intermediaries; no critics. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, because, whatever is written about something, it is not going to stop its consumption. Critics, we may note, live off the fat of the land.

(Indebted to Kristeva, who is nevertheless a social leech. Critics take upon themselves the rather ambitious task of thinking for the public. They assume they are God or more. Julia, obviously, doesn’t belong to the Gens.)

Modern Theatre - II

Did modern theatre start with someone? Did it start by itself? More specifically, Is Beckett a representative of ‘modern theatre’ or is he simply a clever playwright who evolved his own message, his own way of surmounting the crippling limits of the stage play (and spectacularly failed in his later attempts)?

Generally speaking, how does an art movement, or a genre, originate?

We would be foolish to think that the institution called ‘novel’ started with Don Quixote. A book was written (a few copies, a few thousands at the most), it was read by a small reading public (mostly the aristocrats and the gentry, the common folk had other things to do and no free time), and by word of mouth and a more authentic artistic sensibility, the book was established as an important one. It became a cultural milestone. Now, during this entire time, nobody really cared what it was. Everyone liked the book and read it. The book was read more, not things written about the book.

When did this change? Things changed with the institutionalisation of language. Language became not an instrument of practical, everyday use but a sign of power, prestige, and, finally, hegemony. The rise of the European naval powers coincides with the explosive growth of (the European) language. That such a growth is only a tool for the rich and the powerful, that such growth is a handmaiden of the exploiting classes, and aids nothing but exploitation, is easily seen. A farmer who tills the land in rural India, or rural China, does not quite care about his “own” language (apart from its usage, and of course, for that occasional movie), yet he lives, and, if he is smart enough, he leaves something over for his family. He does not know if George Bush got elected in a country called USA; he does not know if a species of bear became extinct; he does not know that once a man had landed on the Moon, nor does he care.

This is not to say that this is the only mode of life worth living, or that this kind of life is authentic whereas ours is not; I am not saying anything of the sort. All I am saying is that language—especially language as an iceberg, as an institution—is a construct, a Goliath of deadly force, a force which often threatens to tilt the scales heavily in favour of the unjust. Language provides a seemingly innocuous but potent way to “peacefully” conquer the world. This has resulted in the widespread realisation that the survival of a nation is tied to the survival of its language.

Conversely, the universal language—English—has also been open to all sorts of influences, so much has it been corrupted that there is now nothing that could be called a standard. English is only the recognisable name given to an enormous set of dialects. Actually, under the hood, what we have is not one language but a complex of thousands of languages, dialects—all using a common alphabet. This sort of attrition is happening to all major languages; indeed, no two persons speak the same language.

I did not raise the question (on how an art movement originates) to speculate indefinitely or to arraign scientific proofs in support of any theory. I have no theory, I am not an academician. Even if I were, I would not be vain enough to propagate a ‘theory’. A theory is only a possibility. (Of course, if someone took me to court over why George Bush would fail if he stood for President of Russia I would be forced to give my theory.) I hope the discussion makes it substantially clear that theory—critical theory on art and theatre in particular—is only so much air between the ahs and the gasps. My work done, I apologize profusely for having taken recourse to a nonsensical, theoretical question, to reach this end.

Attention to detail can only get us farther and farther away from life and living. It draws our attention away from the appearance into ourselves, our perceptions, and finally to the process—where we reign supreme and our ego bloats out reality. Concentrating on the process is hoarding, it is a prelude to exploitation. This is what I do my utmost to guard against. After all, as human beings, we cannot add more memory or processing power. (We clumsily use a PC or the Internet to make presentations as if this information originated from us—it is a fondly held personal belief that a presentation—since everyone is borrowing, so do I—somehow renders the other as ours, as us.) We have reached that point of individual consciousness that everyone is a node in a network. When I see a person in my official capacity (thankfully such occasions are few and far between, I have a few good friends who never remind me of the official creatures), what I’m dealing with is not a person who has a bead of sweat over the brow, but an institution, a technological ego-complex that sits on top of the Web and various other (electronic) sources of information that are too many to specify or are irrelevant. What I am talking to is a confused daze of snatches and snippets, some caught in their flight of grandeur, some outright wrong and erroneous, and some, malformed, some simply breathtaking by their irrelevance and absurdity. It is stunning because it is all so nonsensical: a human being working for an apparatus, for a system.

The thing I’m dealing with has sacrificed the basic advantages of a human being: whatever that thing throws at me, whatever sop it offers me, I don’t trust that thing. Technogrotesque, it is not even worthy of hate. It is a lower form of life.

Fear of Living

The novel might be construed as a shortcut to experiencing life: a safe sandbox. It provided entertainment. Specifically, the first novels were romances like those written by Sir Walter Scott. From the warmth of their hearths, people “worshipped” heroic knights that never existed, made it the centre of their lives, and gave rise to a severely twisted culture that laid the foundation to exploitation of peoples on a large scale. Did soldiers and knights read novels on their campaigns? I don’t think so. If they were lucky enough to return from their travails relatively unharmed (with their limbs and organs intact), well, perhaps. Such novels did ensconce the concept of the hero—a concept we’re still finding it hard to obliterate. The falsity of the hero—the artificiality of his position—has given rise to novels like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and films like Stalker.

The movie takes us away from the novel. It takes us even farther away from life. It is entertainment, and I shall be treating solely this aspect. (The other aspect—as a form of art—hardly counts, as it does not make any change. It is a self-conscious, conscientious return call to life; but it hardly calls, too few watch those movies, and even among those few, too few actually move those little fingers. It is an elevated, sterilized masochism. If blockbusters are overblown stories for boys ‘n gals, art films are adult novels made more palatable by giving them life.)

The computer takes us still farther away by providing us with choices. It brings everything right to your fingertips, and blazes it all on you until your eyes tire of it and your mind falls sick. The least human of all the “media” discussed, the computer proves to us that it does not—nothing does—substitute for life. It just waits for us to do something, it waits for us to consume and to subsume the content it presents us—a content which is eclectic at best but more commonly idiosyncratic. The computer, by laying out the fare we’re entitled to on account of our economic status and our computer savvy, pokes an imaginary finger at us pointing towards mythical the free man, exhorting, “Get real, kiddo—get a life!”


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