Monday, March 20, 2006

"In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption."






In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption.

Raymond Chandler.

All of us are actors. We play roles every day in our normal lives. I am a husband, father, son, writer and lots of other things. You probably have just as many or more roles to play in your life. As Hamlet complains, we "jig, amble and lisp." Yet none of these roles that we play exhausts the human capacity for role-playing. For many of us, exactly like great actors, no single role ever touches to the very bottom of the self. Whatever the self may be -- assuming that there even is one self for each of us -- we may never come to know it fully. We must be something more than the roles that we play in society.

Among our roles are those that we associate with gender. We behave as "men" are supposed to behave; or we are "lady-like," or "demure," as one of my professors once said to the women in my law school class not so long ago. Yes, I am aware of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and As You Like It. Half-wits and psychologists (a redundancy?) will ask: "Does that mean that you're gay?" No, it means that I am a human being. A person is something more complex than your simplistic psychobabble categories and jargon will allow. ("Judith Butler and Gender Theory.") Oscar Wilde comments on the mask-like quality of gender in society and on stage.

Of all the motives of dramatic curiosity used by our great playwrights, there is none more subtle or more fascinating than the ambiguity of the sexes. To say that only a woman can portray the passions of a woman, and that therefore no boy can play Rosalind, is to rob the art of acting of all claims to objectivity, and to assign to the mere accident of sex what properly belongs to imaginative insight and creative energy.

The greatest Hamlet on film for me, is Kenneth Branagh's version with Kate Winslet as "Ophelia." I would stand on line for days to purchase tickets for a stage performance of the play with Ms. Winslet as "Hamlet." It will never happen, but a fantasy film in my mind is Hamlet with an all-American cast, starring Melanie Griffith as the troubled Prince of Denmark. In fact, Hamlet's sensitivity and "adolescent" emotions (T.S. Eliot) may be beyond the grasp of all but a few great male actors in the post-Hemingway era. It takes a powerful and very "feminine" freedom with feelings to play that part, which is something that most men these days cannot achieve.

The word "persona" originally meant the masks worn by tragedians in the theaters of ancient Greece. We all have real faces (presumably) behind the masks that we wear. Yet none of us can say for ourselves what our private faces are really like, because we only know ourselves from the "inside" whereas others see us from the "outside." There are masks for others and masks for ourselves, masks that we wear and masks that wear us. "The man who wears a mask," Oscar Wilde reminds us, "will come to resemble it." Are judges getting this? ("Does Senator Menendez Have Mafia Friends?" and "Senator Bob Struggles to Find His Conscience.")

The fascinations of a mask are explored in works of art as diverse as Phantom of the Opera or The Mask of Zorro. I am reminded also of Yukio Mishima's The Confessions of a Mask. In solitude, of course, we allow our masks to slip. We slide out of our social disguises, permitting our actions and natures to be seen dispassionately -- if only by ourselves -- or by God, if He is "out there." (My review of V for Vendetta was destroyed by censors from the Garden State, after they had plagiarized it.)

Solitude offers a liberation from the pressures to make ourselves attractive to others. We all arrange our personas so as to beguile and charm others, to make others smile or feel happy, especially when we are sad or in despair. We try to fit in to a context, in order to become whatever is deemed "normal" for as long as we are interested in that context.

There is a little bit of Leoncavallo's "Canio" (from Pagliacci) in all of us, forced to see ourselves in the mirror as we remove the grease paint and bright costume of the day, costumes worn always for the benefit of others, who like it when we make them laugh. By helping them to forget their troubles, we may escape our own. Dustin Hoffman asked Laurence Olivier in a moment of exhaustion: "Why do we do it, this acting thing?" With a smile, Olivier responded -- "Why? Look at me, look at me, look at me! That is why."

We all feel this need to be seen; also not to be seen. Actors feel this contradiction more intensely than the rest of us. Perhaps politicians and judges do too. In espionage novels, the "agent" is always "undercover," pretending to be something other than what he or she is, in a world where nothing is what it seems. One thinks, again, of Shakespeare's dramas and, even more, of his comedies. Both John Le Carre and Graham Greene, also Joseph Conrad, Michael Frayn and Tom Stoppard have exploited this espionage setting to dramatize issues of identity and metaphors of imaginative self-creation that now seem increasingly timely and relevant for all of us, spies and non-spies alike. We live in a time when all of us are "undercover" and in disguise. Every writer, especially Shakespeare, reveals truth by disguising it in illusion. (See "The Taming of Somebody" and "Is there a problem about fictional discourse?")

To be seen, we must be willing to appear in an unguarded, vulnerable, morally naked state. In a world filled with torturers and racists, who would reduce us to stereotypes and epithets, this is impossible. It takes a great deal of courage for a person to reveal him- or herself. By doing so -- by asking to be seen by the Other -- we are also inviting that Other to see him- or herself. It is not easy even to write some of these blog essays for Internet consumption, especially in light of non-comprehending and hostile responses, even attempts at censorship, one is likely to experience. Every writer must feel this way sometimes. Perhaps in a climate of hatred, it is impossible for any of us to become who we are, so we withdraw into the theater of the psyche.

Who are we really? If we are merely the persons others can observe and claim to know, as Hume and Skinner might suggest, then we need to be clear about exactly which group of others this might be. The people who know us privately, do not know us publicly. Those who know us professionally, do not know us socially. Those who know us intimately are not aware of us as economic or political agents. Each group of friends or close "strangers" knows a "character," a performance, a mask. Perhaps this is just as well, for their protection and our own.

If as Sartre says, "the self is only in the world" and ceases to exist as soon as we withdraw from the world, then each of us must achieve that withdrawal occasionally in order to really know him- or herself. Persons burdened with the blessings and curse of great fame may appreciate this point. Traditionally, the knowledge of God was regarded as equally impossible in society -- and for similar reasons -- because of the unreality of the world and of ourselves as actors in it. No external perspective will reveal my most fundamental reality, which can only be "seen" by someone I love, or with love. Love is the only force permitted to enter all of the secret places in the magic castle of my self. My guess is that the same is true for most people, especially for all survivors of childhood trauma. (See "Beauty and the Beast.")

Even in private we are still reacting to social expectations. We examine our actions, yes, but only in order to improve the performances that we will eventually give. All good performances are intended to communicate truth. It may be that in the absence of others, there would be no need for a performance at all, no need for a self. No identity would need to be fashioned and protected, but only a pure being would have to be achieved. Such a thing is almost inconceivable.

Wittgenstein insisted that "there can be no private languages." Perhaps there can also be no identifiable self dwelling, like the Edwardians, in "splendid isolation." We need others to confirm our identities, to confirm who and what we are, to confirm our choices. Others serve as mirrors for the psyche, even as we do the same for them. Others must respond to an embodied self. The Other sees a body enter the room. (See R.D. Laing on "petrifaction" and "ontological insecurity.") The world sees a person of a particular age, gender, economic class, well-groomed or not. To be embodied is to be limited. It is to be seen. But it is also not to be seen, for it is only a physical body that is seen.

I remember a Mel Gibson character disfigured in an accident, who points to his face and says: "If this is what you see, then you don't see me." For a handsome movie star to say this is poignant because one realizes that the same must be true in his "real" life -- for different reasons -- and in the lives of so many others. How many women can say the same? Many. If you see only the external trappings of a self, then you do not see the artist creating that self. And to the extent that you create an identity in society, you also are an artist.

When I say "limited," I mean that these embodied characteristics serve as constraints on self-creation, so I resent them. The "postmodern" ambition is absolutist: we desire a total freedom of identity. We want to be all things human -- and impossibly -- to be limited to none. We do not wish to be pinned down to one physical identity as opposed to another. It is because I am male that I cannot be female; because I am a Westerner of European ancestry that I cannot be African or Asian; because I am middle class and casually dressed that I cannot be in a blue suit from Brooks Brothers at the same time, or in traditional Arab or Japanese garb.

I can only act on the world or see it and express myself from my "perspective." Every perspective is incomplete, only partial and hence, unsatisfactory. Yet this recognition alone tells us of an objectivity that transcends such perspectives, a center of value that is everywhere. This is to reach for the Sartrean notion of a totalization. We cannot help being haunted by the hope for an impossible freedom, arising from an absolute realization of one's identity in community. But is there such a thing at all? Or is this only another example of what Sartre describes as the "universal desire to be God"? (No, Freudians this is not meant literally, except for psychiatrists perhaps.) The reading list on this issue includes Nietzsche, Foucault, Artaud and Vidal, maybe also Michael Frayn and Julian Barnes.

The development of computer technology has done much to liberate us from these limitations of the body and to make the dream of an imaginative freedom in art and life -- if not our "ambitions of divinity" -- a bit more plausible. For the first time in human history millions have been emancipated from the condition of imprisonment within the corporeal, physical envelope of the body, thus allowing us to pursue meaningful interactions with others, who are similarly disembodied, in cyberspace.

Computers allow us to reconsider our identities in the age of the Internet (the "Matrix"?). We no longer give commands to a machine, but we enter into "dialogues" -- sometimes "personal" ones -- with "friends" located (what does "located" mean in the computer age?) in different countries and cities. We navigate simulated worlds. We create virtual realities. All of this through the use of language, we exist in (or become?) "simulacra." (Baudrillard)

Computers allow us not only to communicate and exchange ideas with others, but also to assume personae of our own creation. (See "Judith Butler and Gender Theory.") Computers permit us to hide physically, while also revealing aspects of ourselves not seen in our daily lives, like Cyrano writing letters by proxy and in code to Roxanne. (See the image accompanying this essay -- if it has not been blocked by New Jersey's evil minions.)

I wonder how many readers of Internet texts realize all of the levels of communication taking place right here and now, the many messages being conveyed, simultaneously, to different recipients in this one text? Not many, I am sure. There is one person, at least, who will understand.

Computers permit us to become something different, to become the Other. Computers invite us to reverse Nietzsche's dictum and "become the persons we are not." Maybe this is another way of describing acting. We are transformed in cyberspace into disembodied and perspectiveless perceivers, finally achieving what Thomas Nagel describes as "the view from nowhere." One is reminded, once more, of Sartre's maxim that every human being "wishes to be God."

We discover, however, that such a view from "nowhere" is always only an illusion. It is the illusion of art. Every perspective must be rooted somewhere, in some essence or center, which need not be geographical or empirical. For instance, to be "middle-class" is to have a perspective, but not a geographical one. Like Dorothy on her return from Oz, we discover that the bluebird of happiness was always in our own backyard.

This amounts to saying that the only way to discover what is universal is to discover what is particular in ourselves. (See "Elaine Pagels and the Secret Texts of Christianity.") In cyberspace everyone is a dualist, both a body and mind. The "body" is simply invented, from free-floating images. Neither body nor mind is to be found, by the way, when the other is around on the Internet, so the trick is to come to terms with the protean nature of the self. The Other, the screen self, is a use of language.

But then, we step through the mirror and discover that identity is always a fiction, a thing made with smoke and mirrors, a conjuror's trick. All of us are actors. Every attempt to capture and define a self, is doomed to fail. This is especially true when the attempt is made by those who wish to imprison us in their categories. What others -- except for a very few others -- can seize and hang on to, will no longer be me. ("David Hume's Philosophical Romance" and "The 'Galatea Scenario' and the Mind/Body Problem.")

It is now up to us to create the narratives in which we acquire the meanings or identities that we wish to inhabit. Best of all, there are no limits. Sherry Turkle has examined this phenomenon in several books: The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit (1991) and Life on Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (1995). In these works, Professor Turkle traces a set of boundary negotiations telling the story of the growing impact of the computer on our psychological lives and our evolving ideas about minds, bodies and machines.

Professor Turkle asserts that the new sense of identity is "decentered and multiple." She describes trends in computer design, in artificial intelligence, and in people's experiences of virtual environments that confirm a dramatic shift in our notions of self, Other, machine and world. "The computer emerges," according to Ms. Turkle, "as an object that brings postmodernism down to earth." The Internet serves to mediate between a role-playing public self and the more honest and free private self. The relevance of this analysis to the mind/body discussions found elsewhere in this blog should be obvious.

My screen self is both an entity that exists "out there" -- in cyberspace -- and "in here," within the confines of my personal space, because both belong to and come together in the very ordinary person sitting at his keyboard, wearing a forties hat, sipping some strong coffee on a lovely morning in New York. I am wearing my "Batman" underwear. Except that it is now midnight and I am wearing a black costume and mask. Suddenly, I am transformed into the exact replica of Danny Kaye in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

Imagination is the ultimate light saber. Imagination prevents us from being hurt because it allows us to escape the scrutiny of those who are incapable of understanding the adventure that they are asked to share. I have suggested that actors and all artists are great psychologists. This is because persons rich in imagination are able to enter the imaginary world of others. (Relax, Freudians.) Politicians and lawyers also live in dream landscapes, usually featuring elaborate costumes. This is to say nothing of the fantasy world of business and finance where people "buy money." (With what, I wonder?)

Human beings canot help shaping and constructing what they call their "realities." Reality is simply unbearable for many of us, if it cannot be relieved by the "magic" of dreams and intuitions, not to mention the ultimate reality-altering (and reality-creating) power, which is "love." To borrow a term from recent cinema, think of this reality-altering power as "tuning." (See Dark City.) I will turn every evening with a woman I love into a romantic comedy, so that she will be happy. Yet I will also find a way to let her see all there is inside me.

Sir Ralph Richardson was asked about his stunning performance as Shakespeare's "Falstaff," he paused (an actor's pause), and whispered ... "at 7:30 P.M., as the curtain rises, you must dream." As I place my fingers on the keyboard and see words appear before my eyes, magically, I say: "I must dream." This is the special enchantment reserved for children and those injured in childhood -- it is never for those who hate -- it is the capacity to enter "Neverland" at will, by dreaming, while still being wide awake. This enduring cpacity to laugh, dream, and create is enough to inspire absolute hatred and the venom of persons whose death-like reality of evil I describe as a barrel of shit. I would rather die than be what they are. (See Finding Neverland.)

At what point does the writer meet his character, the screen persona? How about the author and reader in any text? Do they meet at all? Where is the boundary today between human and technology? Will our technological extensions of human capacities change the human essence? Or have they already done so?

We can only find what is universally human, as I say, by finding ourselves. This is not a task that can be forced upon a person nor can it be accomplished through torture. I can only manage my anger or pain and express them -- also my hopes and dreams -- through the mysteries of philosophy and literature, by writing. The same is true of my sense of self. Others can do so by acting, painting, or by doing scientific work, or arguing in court. In opening his memoirs, for example, Gore Vidal writes:

... if you have known one person you have known them all. Of course, I am not sure that I have known even one person well, but, as the Greeks sensibly believed, should you get to know yourself, you will have penetrated as much of the human mystery as anyone need ever know.

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