Category Archives: Reading List – Books

Review of Nietzsche: An Introduction to the Understanding of His Philosophical Activity – Karl Jaspers

1936, English translation 1965, Johns Hopkins UP, trans. Charles F. Wallraff and Frederick J. Schmitz, 509 pages
Originally published as Nietzsche: Einführung in das Verständnis seines Philosophierens

Reading this book is a serious undertaking. It’s a book about a philosopher (Nietzsche) by a philosopher (Jaspers, one of the founders of existentialism). It is well-researched, covering Nietzsche’s published materials, unpublished fragments, and letters. In this work, Jaspers reveals the ties between Nietzsche the man and Nietzsche the philosopher. From Nietzsche’s correspondences with musician Peter Gast, theologian Franz Overbeck, classicist Erwin Rohde, his mother, his sister, and others, Jaspers paints a portrait of a lonely individual, somewhat timid, a social misfit, yet extraordinarily polite, and, above all, one bound by the consuming idea of his task: the revaluation of all values.

To Jaspers, Nietzsche’s solitude was a function of the importance Nietzsche attributed to his task of revaluing values, and how his contemporaries could not come along with him: for them, to succeed in the world, they had to also subscribe to morality, Christianity, the idea of Germany, marriage, political correctness, having the right friends, and holding the right views–even if all these notions were based on false values. Some could watch Nietzsche railing against these false values. But it was painful watching him destroy his career. Even though some could watch, no one could come with him. He had to go it alone. Perhaps his friends who watched from a distance were right. When Nietzsche collapsed in 1889, he was nobody and many of his friends were important somebodies. As Jaspers recounts, Nietzsche was self-publishing his books. There were no readers. He was admitted to the Basel asylum as a civilian, denied access to any special treatment or services. The tables have turned now, as many of the somebodies of Nietzsche’s time are only today remembered in their connection with Nietzsche.

In the revaluation of all values, Nietzsche turns the world on its head, much like how Christianity turned the Roman world and values on its head with its “first shall be the last and the last shall be the first” credo. In place of the soul, Nietzsche gives us the will to power. In place of God, Nietzsche gives us the superman. And in place of metaphysics, Nietzsche gives us the eternal recurrence. The will to power is the will to live dangerously, the will that yes “Yes.” The eternal recurrence is the sense of déjà vu, except with a much more badass name. And the superman is the individual who, with the highest form of the will to power, can say yes and affirm all of existence, both its best moments and its darkest. The superman is the individual with an appetite for life. Here I wrote a piece in an honest jest of Freddie Mercury as a modern-day superman.

Jasper’s book, lovingly written, but not to the point of worship–for example, while extolling Nietzsche’s breathtaking insights, singles him out for the crudity of his logical forms and method–is easier to read than Nietzsche himself. But it can be a tough slog for lay readers. The nice thing, however, is that Jaspers quotes so much of Nietzsche that it is a pleasure to read. Nietzsche–as Nietzsche himself described–is, along with Heinrich Heine, the best of the German stylists. His turns of phrases–whether one understands them or not–are beautiful to read. Take for example this turn of words where he talks about his process of overcoming: “Shake me together with all the tears and all the misery of mankind, and I must always rise to the top, like oil on water.” His images are powerful because they are full of action. What is more, his images and aphorisms are fascinating because they’re the sort of things I wish that I could write but know I can’t. There’s something uncanny in how he sees the world. Like how he describes his favourite philosopher (the pre-Socratic Heraclitus), there is, too, in Nietzsche, “a gap in his nature.”

For All His Power, Nietzsche Could Not Foresee His Own Demise

In 1881, while walking through the forest by Lake Silvaplana, the idea of the eternal recurrence came to Nietzsche. In 1883, the idea of the superman and the will to power dawned on him, and he recorded the discovery in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In 1888, he was overjoyed, feeling the task of merging these three concepts into a grand unified philosophy close at hand. By merging metaphysics with mysticism, he would overcome nihilism. God is dead; long live the superman. But there was a problem: Nietzsche realized the eternal recurrence may be indefensible and the will to power unprovable. To put the plug in nihilism, he would have to demonstrate the mechanism through which the eternal recurrence recurred and establish why nature would will to power.

Jaspers recounts some of Nietzsche’s joyous letters of 1888, that great year, but not great in the sense that Nietzsche foresaw. Nietzsche felt himself close to that secret of the grand unification. Glimpses of the solution were coming to him. Soon, he would grasp the whole:

But the decisive symptom of the new condition is a euphoria which appears only occasionally in the course of the year but is constant during the last months. This tone is softly heard first in letters to Seydlitz (Febr. 12, ’88): “The days here come along with an impudent beauty; there never was a more perfect winter.” To Gast he writes (Sept. 27, ’88): “Marvelous clarity, autumnal colors, an exquisite feeling of well-being on all things.” Later on: “I am now the most grateful person in the world–of an autumnal mood in every good sense of the word: this is my great harvest time. Everything is easy for me, everything turns out well for me.” “I am now of the absolute conviction that all has turned out well, from the very beginning; all is one and has one purpose” (to Gast, Dec. 22, ’88).

For all his powers of insight, little did he know, he would come to harvest his sorrows. Less than two weeks after his December 22nd letter to Gast, he would collapse into an insanity from which he would never emerge, dying of pneumonia twelve years later.

It fills me with wonder, how faraway so close he was. And I wonder how many of us too will be struck down, faraway so close to fulfilling our task.

What Nietzsche Can Do for You

There’s so much to read these days. Why should you read Nietzsche, or, for that matter, read Jaspers reading Nietzsche? Like no other writer, Nietzsche inspires. One of the best things about Jaspers’ book are the glimpses of how Nietzsche’s contemporaries saw him through their correspondences. From the letters and correspondences, you can see how Nietzsche inspires even the greatest minds. In Nietzsche, they see the traveler, going it alone, ascending the most dangerous peaks. In that moment, how could they not be filled with awe and wonder? Here, for example, is Erwin Rohde, one of the preeminent classicists (or Altphilologen as they are called in Germany) of the nineteenth century, and author of Psyche (still in print today) writing to Nietzsche. They became acquainted while studying under Friedrich Ritschl, one of the gods of philology:

“To me it seems at times like a defection that I am unable to join you in fishing for pearls in those ocean depths and must instead amuse myself and take a childish delight in gudgeons and other philological vermin” (Dec. 22, ’71). “And so I feel again as I always did when I was together with you: for a while I am elevated into a higher rank, as though I were spiritually ennobled” (Dec. 22, ’79).

When one reads Nietzsche, one is filled with the radiance of life and possibility. Perhaps it is because Nietzsche was constantly striving to rise out of the pit of nihilism that one descends into once God is dead that he charges his writing with an infectious purpose and drive that touches all his readers. It was the case with me. Nietzsche was that distant star that I have followed for so long. If you are looking for your calling, read Nietzsche. Your destiny will beckon. Whether you can follow is another question.

I first encountered Nietzsche in my early teens through his book: The Birth of Tragedy. In that book, he said things like: “It is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that the world can be eternally justified.” Imagine the effect of this on a teen who was used to reading Hardy Boys novels and watching He-Man cartoons. Nietzsche, compared with everyone else, spoke with such immortal purpose. I was hooked. I decided that I too, would write a theory of tragedy, which, after reading Nietzsche, seemed the highest of all human endeavours.

To prepare myself for the task, I enrolled in Greek and Roman Studies: Nietzsche, before the classicists threw him out and the philosophers welcomed him, had started out as a classicist. At UVic I studied under Laurel Bowman, and at Brown, under Charles Fornara and David Konstan. Because Nietzsche was also published in a peer-reviewed journal as an undergraduate, I thought I would do the same, and wrote an article on fate and free will in Homer’s Iliad. Then, later, after two failed attempts, I succeeded in combining probability theory with literary theory and produced a new theory of tragedy based on risk as the dramatic fulcrum of the action. Finally, to take my theory from page to stage, I inaugurated the world’s largest playwriting competition for the writing of tragedy, now in its third year.

All this from a spark that shot off the embers of Nietzsche’s thought. It has been a whole life of inspiration. I promise you too, that you will be inspired if you read Nietzsche. Is that a good enough reason to pick up Nietzsche over some other writer?

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.

Author Blurb

Karl Jaspers (1883-1969), a founder of existentialism, studied law and medicine at the University of Heidelberg in Germany and received his M.D. degree in 1909. He taught psychiatry and philosophy at the University of Heidelberg, and philosophy at the University of Switzerland. His books include General Psychopathology, also available in paperback from Johns Hopkins.

Book Blurb

Nietzsche claimed to be a philosopher of the future, but he was appropriated as a philosopher of Nazism. His work inspired a long study by Martin Heidegger and essays by a host of lesser disciples attached to the Third Reich. In 1935, however, Karl Jaspers set out to “marshall against the National Socialists the world of thought of the man they had proclaimed as their own philosopher.” The year after Nietzsche was published, Jaspers was discharged from his professorship at Heidelberg University by order of the Nazi leadership. Unlike the ideologues, Jaspers does not selectively cite Nietzsche’s work to reinforce already held opinions. Instead, he presents Nietzsche as a complex, wide-ranging philosopher–extraordinary not only because he foresaw all the monstrosities of the twentieth century but also because he saw through them.

Review of THE ILIAD OR THE POEM OF FORCE – Simone Weil

pages 182-215 in Simone Weil: An Anthology, trans. Mary McCarthy, ed. Sian Miles, Penguin, 2005

The Classics

In the Greek and Roman studies, I had two loves: Homer’s Iliad and tragedy, particularly those of Aeschylus and Sophocles. I admired the Iliad for Homer’s look of distance. He tells the story of a great war. Each of the combatants realizes the war is a zero-sum game ending in death, yet they persevere. The point?–to exchange the commodity of honour on the battlefield by killing, or being killed. The purpose of such a life?–to become immortal, become an object of song for future generations of singers to sing. The funny thing is by dying they succeeded.  I admired Aeschylus and Sophocles’ tragedies for a similar reason. Though their protagonists suffer terribly, they understand suffering to be a natural part of existence. There was never a need to explain suffering away. We are not gods. Therefore, we suffer, and terribly. Attempts to justify suffering and evil seemed to me contrived. In Homer, Aeschylus, and Sophocles, I found a beguiling theodicy: suffering and misery transform mortals into immortals. We are not remembered for our happiness.

In my student days up to the present day, I would read all the secondary material on epic and tragedy. In later years, I would be fortunate enough to add to the material myself: a new theory of tragedy based on risk and an article on fate and free will in epic. From time to time–not often, but often enough–the footnotes and bibliographies in this secondary material would mention an essay with a most curious name: L’Iliade ou le poème de la force (The Iliad or The Poem of Force). At the time, I never sought it out to read, but the name haunted me. What did Simone Weil mean by ‘poem of force’? So intriguing…

The idea of force fascinates me, and many others. Nietzsche turned force into a fundamental drive behind all other drives in his will to power. Bob Dylan devoted an album–Love and Theft–to examining force and power. Rush did the same in their album Power Windows. Last month, I ran into another article mentioning Weil’s The Iliad or The Poem of Force. It was time. I ordered a copy of a Penguin anthology of her works. I’m glad I did.

When Writing about Force, One Must Have Force

One of my complaints in the classics was that I’d read or hear so many people without force talking about some the most forceful personalities the world has known. I remember one time there was a presentation on Caesar. It was delivered in this monotone and uninterested voice, completely devoid of passion. I remember wondering why someone would study and research Caesar who was so devoid of the spirit of Caesar. The eye sees the sun because it has in it that spark that is the sun’s fire. How can one see Caesar who doesn’t have in their eye the gleam of fire lighting up Caesar’s eye? Reading Weil, there was no danger of this. From the first sentence, force permeates her essay. Her concentration of power is amazing. To read Weil is to be in the presence of greatness. Consider her opening paragraph:

The true hero, the true subject, the centre of the Iliad is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away. In this work, at all times, the human spirit is shown as modified by its relations with force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to. For those dreamers who considered that force, thanks to progress, would soon be a thing of the past, the Iliad could appear as a historical document; for others, whose powers of recognition are more acute and who perceive force, today as yesterday, at the very centre of human history, the Iliad is the purest and the loveliest of mirrors.

In a tripartite construction (hero…subject…centre), the first sentence boldly announces force is the protagonist in the Iliad. It is not Achilles. It is not war. It is not rage. It is force. There is no buildup to this discovery. It is stated point-blank in one sentence, and the opening sentence. The second sentence, in another tripartite structure, provides examples of force. The language is direct and ornate at the same time. Then the third sentence slips into the passive voice, a construction frowned upon by writing experts who prefer the active voice, the voice of doing rather than being done to. In the third sentence the human spirit is ‘shown to be modified’. But here too, there is a reason. The passive voice shows the overpowering force of force over the human spirit, which, in the passive construction, is being held in thrall. The passive construction highlights the helplessness of the human agent in the face of force. Brilliant. Then the concluding couplet: ‘For those dreamers…’ and ‘For others, who powers of recognition are more acute…’. In the closing couplet, Weil makes it plain that she is aware that there is another way to look at the work, an opposing reading. She also makes it clear, in most forceful language, where she stands. Force, for those with the eyes to see, is the eternal mover upon which a philosophy of history can be built. She died, I think, too young to fulfil her destiny. Who has the greatness to take her up where she left off? Do such people still exist today?

Her power blew me away. On my first reading of The Iliad or the Poem of Force, I had been working on a paper. Reading her essay made me throw my paper out and start anew. It was embarrassing how she could say in hundreds of characters what I needed hundreds of words to make clear. It is seldom that I encounter such a powerhouse. The last encounter I had with greatness of the highest level was five years ago reading Edward O. Wilson’s Consilience.

Force is Simplicity

Though the essay is short, Weil picks her examples for maximum effect. Her familiarity with the Iliad comes through in how effortlessly she comes up with the perfect example to describe each of the faces of force. To Weil, a religious-anarchist thinker, force is the motivating power shaping history. She once told Trotsky once that he was mistaken. It was not class struggle, but force that would decide the future. I’m also reading Karl Jasper’s critique of Nietzsche right now, and I can’t help but wonder if Weil was familiar with Nietzsche’s will to power. For Nietzsche, the will to power was the underlying drive. For Weil, however, force is something that comes and goes. It is with us one moment, and gone the next:

Still more poignant–so painful is the contrast–is the sudden evocation, as quickly rubbed out, of another world: the faraway, precarious, touching world of peace, of the family, the world in which each man counts more than anything else to those about him:

“She ordered her bright-haired maids in the palace
To place on the fire a large tripod, preparing
A hot bath for Hector, returning from battle.
Foolish woman! Already he lay, far from hot baths,
Slain by grey-eyed Athena, who guided Achilles’ arm.”

Far from hot baths he was indeed, poor man. And not he alone. Nearly all the Iliad takes place far from hot baths. Nearly all of human life, then and now, takes place far from hot baths.

Weil accomplishes so much with so little. So too Homer. Andromache pour Hector a bath. We don’t know what’s going through her mind. Then the narrator interjects: Hector’s already dead. The effect is not unlike something Dylan pulled off more recently in ‘Cross the Green Mountain:

A letter to mother came today
Gunshot wound to the breast is what it did say
But he’ll be better soon he’s in a hospital bed
But he’ll never be better, he’s already dead.

Both poets step back and let the readers weigh the human impact of death. Weil’s genius is in her short turn of phrase ‘then as now’. It is a poignant reminder that she is critiquing a poem of war during a time of war–the first year of the Second World War. When the world gives you force, it is a good time to examine force.

Why We Read the Greats

Weil doesn’t make for the easiest reading. So why read Weil? It’s worth it reading the greats because they can give you insight into unrelated problems you’re working on that you can’t think through. The greats have a different perspective. Whether you agree or not, to follow along their argument, your mind is working on a different pitch, sometimes just trying to keep up and other times contorting itself to unravel the strange intellectual knots. As the mind goes through these motions, sometimes it can catch a glimpse of something else that it’s been working on from this new angle, and from this new angle, find a breakthrough.

One of my interests has been the relation between fate and chance. In a paradoxical way, they seemed to me to be two sides of the same coin. Fate is chance with the benefit of hindsight (thank you AB for that catchy turn of phrase). I’ve been writing about how chance and fate are intertwined in Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes and Shakespeare’s Macbeth. I hadn’t, however, figured out how chance and fate in the Iliad was intertwined. I had a feeling it might be, because, to me, chance and fate is invariably linked in tragedy, and, the Iliad, although classified as epic, is also understood by some–including Plato–to be the prototypical tragedy. But, the Iliad thus far had defeated my attempts to unify the two forces of chance and fate. They just seemed too far apart. In the Iliad it was like how Weil described: force is the ruling power, and determinate force could allow no room for chance to function. Even in Patroclus’ funeral games, where several of the contestants slip, the slip is shown not to be accidental (e.g. by chance) but is, to those in the know, caused by the gods.

While I was reading Weil, part of my brain must have been thinking about chance and fate. But her writing was making me think hard, and when she quoted this passage, the answer came to me:

Even to Achilles the moment comes; he too must shake and stammer with fear, though it is a river that has this effect on him, not a man. But, with the exception of Achilles, every man in the Iliad tastes a moment of defeat in battle. Victory is less a matter of valour than of blind destiny, which is symbolized in the poem by Zeus’s golden scales:

“Then Zeus the father took his golden scales,
In them he put the two fates of death that cuts down all men,
One for the Trojans, tamers of horses, one for the bronze-sheathed Greeks.
He seized the scales by the middle; it was the fatal day of Greece that sank.”

By its very blindness, destiny establishes a kind of justice.

In a flash it came to me: Zeus may have rolled dice to determine the fates of the Greeks and the Trojans. Chance and fate in the Iliad are intertwined as well. Even though I’ve known the passage with Zeus and his scales for a long time, I needed to read Weil to think it through. It must have been her words bringing together “blindness” and “destiny.” It’s moments like this that make reading the greats worthwhile.

The Loveliest of Mirrors

The Iliad is a poem of force. Force makes all those who fall under its dominion things. But the Iliad is beautiful because, in the process of becoming a thing, the people of the Iliad remember friendships, think of moms and dads faraway, and contemplate what life that could have been. Despite the go-fever of war, every so often, they recover the soul. There is a spattering of these precious moments, moments where the war-machine Achilles and Priam, the king of kings, come together to cry, Achilles for the father whose son he has slain and Priam for his son who Achilles has slain. And that, to Weil, is what makes the Iliad that poem the poems among.

In Weil’s own time, factories and war too would sap the soul and turn people into things. But Weil too in her own time would see souls, for an instant, break free of force. And in these moments, she would see again Andromache drawing a bath for Hector, already dead. And in these moments, I am sure, she was drawn back to all that is the Iliad, the loveliest of mirrors. We are the creatures of force, yet, in that great moment, for an instant, we rise above before force reasserts its crushing power. Weil’s mirror too, is also the loveliest in that she was writing on a poem of war during a time of war, and it may be, that we will never understand the Iliad like how she understood it, until we find ourselves looking at it, like Weil, from a time of war. Today, critics like myself living in Canada, are only peacetime critics.

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.

Author Blurb

Simone Weil was one of the foremost thinkers of the twentieth century: a philosopher, theologian, critic, sociologist and political activist. This anthology spans the wide range of her thought, and includes an extract from her best-known work ‘The Need for Roots’, exploring the ways in which modern society fails the human soul; her thoughts on the misuse of language by those in power; and the essay ‘Human Personality’, a late, beautiful reflection on the rights and responsibilities of every individual. All are marked by the unique combination of literary eloquence and moral acuity that characterized Weil’s ideas and inspired a generation of thinkers and writers both in and outside her native France.

REVIEW of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World – Giridharadas

2019, Vintage, 288 pages

Giridharadas defines MarketWorld as “an ascendant power elite that is defined by the concurrent drives to do well and do good, to change the world while also profiting from the status quo.” He has a beef with MarketWorld because of its inherent contradiction. In Winners Take All, Giridharadas points out the irony of how MarketWorlders donate money to rehab programs after raking in profits selling opioids (Purdue Pharma). Other examples include how MarketWorlders who own companies that target African Americans with more addictive menthol cigarettes give grants to help African Americans eat healthier in Harlem (Loews Corporation). Winners Take All is written as a tell-all exposé revealing the dark side of philanthropy all the way from Andrew Carnegie in the late nineteenth century to The Clinton Global Initiative and The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation today.

The problem, according to Giridharadas, is that MarketWorlders become who they are by exploiting the masses. They harness the inequalities in the system to become the power brokers. And then they donate money to the causes that they support. They target a social and economic issue such as poverty, for example. But they never target the inequality itself that lies at the root of poverty. And that, writes, Giridharadas, is the heart of the contradiction: MarketWorlders create the problem, then ease their conscience by writing a cheque. Philanthropy in that guise is a sham. Today’s philanthropists donate, but they preserve the status quo that makes such donations necessary. Without the status quo, they wouldn’t have become rich. The rich have a blindspot when it comes to inequality. To illustrate his point, Giridharadas begins his book Winners Take All with a memorable epigram by Tolstoy:

I sit on a man’s back choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am sorry for him and wish to lighten his load by all means possible . . . except by getting off his back.

Solution One: Increase Taxes on the Wealthy

Because the rich will not address inequality, another group has to step up. Giridharadas proposes that the government is well suited for this task. The government, by increasing taxes on corporations and the wealthy, can fund a greater array of social programs to alleviate inequality.

Although not mentioned by Giridharadas, one such program that would have wide support from both sides of the political spectrum, from 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang to economist Milton Friedman–the architect of Reaganomics–is a universal basic income program. Such a program would simplify government and do away with the stigma of receiving welfare, employment insurance, and many other government programs by doing away with income-tested benefits by providing an automated and perpetual income stream to each citizen irregardless of wealth or need. Universal basic income appeals to the right because it simplifies government, makes government smaller by rolling welfare, employment insurance, disability benefits, etc., into one program. And universal basic income appeals to the left because it satisfies the left’s mandate for government to look after people.

In Canada, many people during the Covid-19 pandemic have come to rely on the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) payments. In the dialogue on what happens when the CERB program ends, some people have suggested instituting a universal basic income program. We will see.

Solution Two: Change Corporate Structures

Corporations exist for one purpose, and that purpose is to maximize shareholder value. “Greed is good,” runs the corporate mantra. If a company tries to place “doing good” ahead of “creating shareholder value,” shareholders will revolt and replace the board of directors. As Harvard business school professor Michael Porter and Mark Kramer wrote in a seminal 2011 essay: “Creating Shared Value,” companies overlook the long-term good by maximizing shareholder value in day to day and quarter to quarter operations. What if a new type of corporation could be created, one where “doing good” was built into its charter along with “maximizing shareholder value?”

After working years in private equity, this is what Andrew Kassoy did: he came up with and enacted a plan to reform corporate structure. He devised a framework to convert existing companies or for startups to structure themselves as “B corps” or “benefit corporations.” B corps would pursue a dual mandate to enrich shareholders and pursue good. Notable B corps today include Kickstarter, King Arthur Flour, Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia, and Natura.

The largest B corp is the publicly traded education company Laureate Education with over 150 campuses in ten countries. It started trading on the Nasdaq in February 1, 2017 at $14 per share. Three and a half years later, it’s trading at $13.81, down 1.35%. I compared Laureate Education (LAUR) to other conventional (e.g. standard, not B corp) education companies trading on the Nasdaq. Perdoceo Education (PRDO) was at $9.78 February 1, 2017. Today it’s at $11.81, up 20.76%. Lincoln Education (LINC) was at $1.96 February 1, 2017. Today it’s at $5.34, up 176%. K12 (LRN) was at $19.53 February 1, 2017. Today it’s at $28.93, up 48.13%. Finally, America Public Education (APEI) was at $24.40 February 1, 2017. Today it’s at $28.84, up 18.2%. The difference in performance between the B corp Laureate Education and the others must be the inferred cost of “doing good.” The question, as always, is: “Do you invest in Laureate and let their board decide what is good or do you invest in the others and take the profit to use on what you yourself decide is good?” You cannot have your cake and eat it too: either you let Laureate do good at the cost of your return on investment or you invest in the other, more mercenary companies which will enrich you at others’ expense.

Solution Three: Ask the People You are Helping for Feedback

It’s ironic, writes Giridharadas, how the elites change the lives of those who need help without ever consulting them. The elites–who hail from the ivory towers and the gilded halls of private equity–look at social issues as corporate or academic issues: have a meeting, break down the problem into discrete quanta, insert each of these quanta into a PowerPoint presentation, put in into a chart, a graph, and connect the points. But, the greatest problems of our age are human concerns. Instead of turning the oppressed and the downtrodden and the unfortunate into a statistic and foisting your preconceived notion of what is good onto them, why not ask them what they want, ask them if they have ideas of how to better their world? If your goal is to help a village in Mongolia, it might be a good idea to do some ground reconnaissance in addition to your closed-door PowerPoint presentation.

This seems like a good point. Who knows the unintended consequences of bringing Western reforms to the far corners of the globe? I wish Giridharadas had taken his own advice in Winners Take All. He interviews many people and presents many points of view in the book. Unfortunately, all the critiques of capitalism he cites comes from CEOs, former presidents of the United States of America, private equity barons, and TED talks thought leaders. What does the street vendor in Vietnam think of inequality? What about the Mongolian miner working at the Rio Tinto copper mine? We don’t know. This not knowing the view from the ground brings me to my closing point: what are the roots of inequality?

The Roots of Inequality?

If you ask the power brokers in First World countries where poverty comes from, they will tell you that poverty arises from inequality. It started with Adam Smith’s economics. He told the butcher, the brewer, and the baker that self-interest makes the world go around. From Adam Smith to today’s corporations a line can be drawn: Smith’s self-interest has become the corporations “greed is good” mantra. As a result, some became rich and others became poor. The results are disastrous, they will say. And they will quote statistics that are hard to argue against, statistics such as how the top ten percent of people own ninety percent of the world’s wealth. Capitalism is the problem, the power brokers will say. And that is what they do say in Giridharadas’ book. Capitalism allows the few to get rich off the backs of the many.

Now, if you ask the less well to do folks in First World countries why they live in poverty, they might, to judge from movement such as Occupy Wall Street, say something similar. Capitalism favours the rich, who get rich by exploiting the poor. The rich, in turn, through lobbying and donations to political parties, fandangle new ways to avoid paying taxes and nurturing the society that made wealth possible.

Now, if you ask the less well to do folks in Third World countries why they live in poverty, they just might have something different to say than the folks in First World countries. Judging from the vitality, dynamism, and energy in the hustling and bustling markets emerging in Vietnam, China, Poland, and Hungary, less well to do folks in Third World countries may be welcoming capitalism’s market reforms. Their response may be the opposite to that of their counterparts in developed countries.

This is one of the reasons I was hoping that Giridharadas would have asked the people burdened by inequality all over the world for their feedback. I conjecture that First World folks are quick to blame inequality. And I conjecture that Third World folks are less likely to blame inequality. My question, and one that is valid, in my mind is this: is capitalism a First World problem? My gut tells me many folks outside the First World would actually welcome capitalism.  Why this divide?

What is Inequality?

My closing question is this, and I don’t think it’s a question that’s easy to answer. There are so many variables involved, the question is probably best thought of as a thought experiment. My question is this: is inequality an artifact of capitalism, or is inequality something else, a natural, sociological phenomenon?

For a second, let’s turn away from the financial marketplace. Let’s look at book sales, something that has attracted my attention since publishing a book last year. Each year, over three million books are released globally. Most of these three million books will sell a few hundred copies. Some will sell thousands and tens of thousands. But the book market, despite being made up of millions of books, will be dominated by a few best-sellers. Think Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, and Dan Brown. In fact, the top 10% of best-sellers will be responsible for 85% of all books sold. If we extend this slightly, the top 20% of best-sellers will have captured nearly the entire book market, being responsible for 95% of the world’s book sales. Talk about inequality! But does anyone complain about the inequality of the book market? I think most people accept this as the way things are.

Did the distribution of book sales–the top 10% of the sellers own 85% of the market–remind you of another distribution I mentioned earlier in this blog? Earlier, citing Giridharadas, I wrote that the wealthiest 10% own 90% of the world’s wealth. In the markets, it appears a few winners take all. So too, in the book market, it appears a few winners take all. Is there a relation between the book and stock markets?

The Power Law Distribution

Although consumers believe they exercise autonomy in purchasing books, an emergent phenomenon can be seen if you plot book sales on a double logarithmic graph with the x-axis representing the sales rank (with each unit increasing in powers of 10, e.g. 1, 10, 100, 1000, etc.,) and the y-axis representing sales volume (again, with each vertical unit increasing in powers of 10, e.g. 1, 10, 100, 1000, etc.,). When sales rank and sales volume are plotted on a double logarithmic graph, a straight lines forms, descending on roughly a 45-degree angle from the top left to the bottom right of the chart.

Emergent phenomena are some of the coolest things. They are phenomena that appear on large scales, but not on small scales. The flight of starlings or the motions of schooling fish are emergent phenomena: like book buyers, they make individual decisions but the sum of their individual decisions can be modelled. When we see emergent phenomena, we see in social, economic, and natural systems a greater power at work, an invisible hand creating order from chaos.

If you plot on a log-log graph the number of people against their wealth, you will find that the miraculous happens: the data points will form a straight line with a similar slope to the book sales graph. Wealth–or inequality–obeys a power law distribution. What this says is that inequality is a natural phenomenon like all the other distributions that obey a power law. Besides book sales and income, the size of cities, the power of earthquakes, and the frequency academic papers are cited all obey power law distributions.

The power law hints at powerful forces shaping the quantities it measures. To determine the hidden mechanisms guiding the power law’s invisible hand, we have to conjecture. With book sales, for example, we can conjecture that the winning authors take all because of the influence of big publishers, word of mouth, the action of book clubs, the ability of social media to scale sales, the concentrating effect of bestseller lists, and so on.

Something similar can be done for income. We can conjecture, for example, a base point where people start off at similar incomes and wealth. By the action of chance, some will make more than others. Then we can add more variables: the ones with more can invest more, increasing their wealth at a faster proportion than those with less wealth. And perhaps those with minor wealth will choose to invest their money with a handful of winners, increasing the wealth of the handful of winners in much the same way as book buyers congregate towards a few best-selling titles. Then sooner or later, in this thought experiment, you end up with an income distribution that approximates that of the real world. Note that in this thought experiment, capitalism and inequality are not necessary hypotheses. The only necessary hypothesis is that, by random chance some will become wealthier.

In this view, capitalism and the markets are not responsible for inequality. In any given society–socialist, capitalist, communist, and agrarian, from the Bronze Age through to ancient Rome, the Industrial Revolution, up to modern times–the action of chance and the snowballing effect of social networks will create a winner take all distribution in wealth. You can redistribute the wealth through revolution or taxation, but you only reset the system for a duration: inequality, like the force of earthquakes and the size of cities, is a natural law built into the structure of society, any society. The moment the system is reformed, it starts working itself back into a critical state in a new guise.

The elites ascribe their position and wealth to superior intelligence and work ethic. The poor ascribe their position to the erosive power of capitalism and inequality. They are both fooled by randomness. If we can observe, from ancient to modern times, the distribution of income following a power law, then inequality is nature’s will. And how do you rebel against natural law? In ancient Rome, the Gracchi thought they had the answers. In revolutionary France, Robespierre thought he had the answers. Today, Thomas Piketty proposes his answers. But what is the answer? The answer, Giridharadas, is blowing in the wind.

– – –

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.

Review of THE GIFT: HOW THE CREATIVE SPIRIT TRANSFORMS THE WORLD – Lewis Hyde

Vintage, 2019 3rd edition (1983 original), 474 pages

In its Library of Congress classification, Hyde’s The Gift is filed under the heading of “economic anthropology.” I can see why it’s an economics book, but perhaps for a different reason than you think. Its structure reminds me of Bloomberg finance articles. Have you noticed how formulaic finance articles are? They begin with some eye-catching headline: “Bob Big Shot Banker Sees Gold Surging to $2500” or something equally dramatic. Next come the supporting arguments: uncertainty in the upcoming election is driving up the price of gold, geopolitical tension is driving up the price of gold, and so on. Then the article ends by hedging its own arguments: “But all bets are off if the good guy wins the election” or “But all bets are off if the peace settlement is negotiated in time.” Does this sort of structure seem familiar?

Like Bloomberg articles, The Gift begins with an enticing eye-catching headline: “Capitalism Destroys Art: Hyde and Artists Call for a Return of the Gift Economy.” The arguments follow, fast and furious. Art is a gift. To assign a market value to a gift destroys the gift. For this reason, artists languish under capitalism. Gift economies, however, increase the abundance of art. Look to the tribes of the South Sea Islands which circulated necklaces and armshells. Look to the potlatch ceremonies of indigenous North American populations who exchanged ornate copper plaques. Look to the embodied wisdom in folk tales that say: “To possess is to give.” And, for evidence of the fecundity of art in gift rather than market economies, look to the poems and lives of two American poets, Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound. Then, in a surprise move, Hyde concludes by saying that perhaps all bets are off: art and capitalism can coexist.

Finance articles make me smile. They’re articles which seem to say something but say nothing. By hedging their bets, the writer tries to have it both ways: heads I win (“I told you this would happen”) and tails I win as well (“I told you this might not happen”). The writer has no skin in the game: he’s already covering his tracks in case he’s wrong. For the same reason Hyde’s The Gift arouses my suspicions. He talks of the evils and excesses of the market economy, touts the wholesomeness of the gift economy, and ends by saying that although capitalism destroys art, capitalism is here to stay.

If his thesis, as the conclusion of the book seems to say, is incorrect and requires further examination, then what’s in it for the modern day artist?—the book makes it clear that there can be no returning to the widespread gift economies of old. Society is just too big now. Why should the artist read this book? In the foreword, Margaret Atwood writes: “If you want to write, paint, sing, compose, act or make films, read The Gift.” But, having read the book, I am thinking that, if I wanted to write, paint, sing, compose, act, or make films, the last book I’d want to read would be The Gift. The world it paints for the arts is dismal: art is a gift that the artist will never be paid full value for.

When I picked up The Gift, I was hoping for some kind of revelation into value in art and in life. The reviews and accolades the book received were of the highest order. I was hoping for something life-changing, something like Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez’ Your Money or Your Life, a book I read twelve years ago which changed the way I look at labour. The Gift, I feel, fails to live up to its hype.

Art is a Gift

Hyde’s fundamental position is that art is a gift. It’s inspiration. We don’t will art to happen, it just happens. The ancients allegorized this inspiration into the image of the Muses who would visit the artist to infuse the artist with the divine vision. In more modern times, when Jack Kerouac advises artists to be “submissive to everything,” he’s telling them to think of themselves as a conduit for inspiration, rather than as the source of the inspiration itself. Because art is a gift and not a commodity, capitalism can’t quite put the correct value on art. And when it tries to value art, it destroys art in the same way as a gift is destroyed when one starts to calculate its value in dollars and cents. Or so Hyde argues.

Three objections to the “capitalism can’t value gifts” hypothesis come to mind. First: is art a gift? Second: if art is a gift, then are not many things other than art also gifts? Third: doesn’t the market circulate art further than the gift economy could?

It’s a romantic notion to think of the artist as a Byronic figure communing with nature in some distant cave. I get that. But is that the case? For a long time, the artist was thought of as a tradesperson, and looked upon the same way as we look at electricians, plumbers, and carpenters today. Except these artist tradespeople wouldn’t build houses. They would build songs to be sung at the liturgy. Think of JS Bach or Handel, who were employed to churn out new compositions for the faithful year in and year out. Other artists were expected to craft poems to recite at state festivals. Think of Sophocles and Aeschylus, poets who wrote plays year in and year out for the festival of the Greater Dionysia.

Is the production of art a gift created by a heroic Byronic artist tuning into the world spirit or is the production of art a trade? These days—as evidenced by Hyde’s position—art is pure inspiration, something that breaks all the rules like Jimi Hendrix’ guitar playing. It comes to you from the heavens. But, in the past, the creation of music was more like a trade. Young composers would spend years imitating the old masters in music guilds (the historical equivalent to the trade unions producing carpenters today) before creating something in their own style. Even in folk music up to the 1950s, you wouldn’t be expected to write new songs: if you were a folk singer, you were a tradesperson, working in the tradition, putting your spin on the songs passed down to you.

Wouldn’t artists be better served to think of themselves as tradespersons? It’s a more down to earth way of looking at yourself than seeing yourself as a lightning rod for divine inspiration. And this way, you can get paid some kind of standard market rate. Hyde has a point when he says it’s hard for Byronic hero type artists to be paid fairly: how much should you charge to be the lightning rod for divine inspiration? Baroque composers such as Telemann and Heinichen were considered to be tradespersons. It wasn’t until Beethoven and later that the cult of the divinely inspired artist arose. Maybe we should return to Baroque sensibilities where art is not so much a gift, but a trade.

Hyde, however, addresses this point. He posits that today there is low art and high art. By low art he means romance novels and perspective drawings used to illustrate architectural spaces. In some cases, artists may partake of both spheres, as in the case of the painter Edward Hopper, who would paint soulful night-scenes of American cities one day and produce paintings for magazines such as Hotel Management the next. Low art is art by the numbers, is machine art, is expendable art, is art that will be forgotten. High art, on the other hand, has soul and, like scientific discoveries and the other monuments of the creative spirit, will endure for all time.

I object to this sort of split between low and high art. This sort of distinction smacks of elitism, seems hoity-toity. If, say, romance novel such as Nora Roberts can sell millions of copies over and again, then, there is something of the creative spark in her artistry. Her work moves people. It is art. This point has been a matter of contention in my book club, of all places, for a long time. I’ve been trying to get us to read a romance novel. The response is: “Romance novels are beneath us.” To which I respond: “You know how hard it is just to sell a few hundred copies of a book? These writers are selling hundreds of thousands of copies. In a hundred years, I bet there will be university courses on the 21st century romance novel and people in the future will lament how underrated the best romance writers were. Some romance novels will even become classics.” Some people believe this may happen. Some don’t. The people who don’t believe it could happen also didn’t believe the Smithsonian Museum would stage a Bob Ross painting exhibition. Bob Ross is now part of the Smithsonian’s permanent collection. If you’re not familiar, Bob Ross is the TV painter who painted “happy trees,” “almighty mountains,” and “fluffy clouds,” the painter whose works were considered crass, banal, and derided as commercialized kitsch by the serious artists of the time.

If you’re looking for more examples of low art which makes high art blush, consider Andy Warhol’s Pop Art or Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. Beethoven spent four years at the end of his life composing 33 variations around Diabelli’s banal and run-of-the-mill waltz. In both Warhol and Beethoven’s cases, they created art that appealed to mass sensibilities to make a few bucks. The legend surrounding the variations is that Beethoven refused to work with Diabelli’s Schusterfleck or “cobbler’s patch” theme until he found out how much Diabelli was paying. In both Warhol and Beethoven’s cases, the commercialization of their gift does not seem to have impaired the soul or their art. Warhol is considered one of the 20th century’s preeminent artists and The Diabelli Variations one of the pieces the pieces amongst in the concert repertoire.

For a moment, let’s say with Hyde that art is a gift. What is more, let’s also say with Hyde that gifts are better off circulating in the gift rather than the market economy. Then the real question becomes: is art the only gift?  Let’s say there’s a gardener. She just has a knack growing plants. Her talent is a gift just as much as the painter’s or poet’s art is a gift. Should the gardener also circulate the fruits of her labours outside the market economy? Or let’s say there’s a dog or horse whisperer. He just has a knack with animals. His talent is a gift as well. People are dumbfounded at how he understand animals and animals him. Or let’s say there’s an athlete. She can skate and shoot the puck better than anyone else. She’s gifted. Now consider this: Hyde would have zero issues with hockey players, veterinarians, and farmers partaking in the market economy. Athletes, doctors, and farmers also have a gift. Why does Hyde only have an issue with artists partaking in the market economy? Is it because, at bottom, he feels that the market economy pays artists too little? I’m thinking that may be the real reason. Note that his two case studies of poets in the second section of the book are both poets that lived and died in penury: Walt Whitman and Ezra Pound.

Either / Or, Leonard Cohen, and David Bowie

In a typical either / or proposition that characterizes his book, Hyde writes:

But the artist who sells his own creations must develop a more subjective feel for the two economies and his own rituals for both keeping them apart and bringing them together. He must, on the one hand, be able to disengage from the work and think of it as a commodity. He must be able to reckon its value in terms of current fashions, know what the market will bear, demand fair value, and part with the work when someone pays the price. And he must, on the other hand, be able to forget all that and turn to serve his gifts on their own terms. If he cannot do the former, he cannot hope to see his art, and if he cannot do the latter, he may have no art to sell, or only a commercial art, work that has been created in response to the demands of the market, not in response to the demands of the gift.

Either the artist uses his gift or the artist commercializes his gift. If he uses his gift, he may not have anything to sell. If he commercializes his gift, he loses the soul of art. Grim indeed. But what of the artist who realizes he can adapt his gift to the market economy? That was the story of poet Leonard Cohen. He realized his gift was poetry. And he also realized he couldn’t make money selling his poetry. Not that he was unhappy selling his inspiration, there just weren’t buyers. But he realized if he set his poetry to song, he could make a living as a singer-songwriter. He adapted. Hyde’s artist is an idealist, all or none. The all-or-none artist can’t adapt, and become a bitter shell: case in point is Ezra Pound. Why not adapt your gift like Leonard Cohen? Most people would say the commercialization of his art in no way detracts from the soul of beauty.

David Bowie was another artist who found a way in capitalism. He securitized his art by inventing and issuing “Bowie bonds.” Investors would purchase bonds in $1000 denominations from Bowie. The bonds were backed by his music catalog. The royalties from his music catalog would pay investors 7.9% each year over ten years. The investors bought the rights to his royalties for a decade. At the end of the decade, Bowie would return the investors’ principal, and the rights to the catalog went back to Bowie. The investors would get a 7.9% income stream, and a chance to own the man who sold the world. Bowie would get $55 million up front, the amount of money investors poured into his Bowie bond offering. Does anyone think the lesser of Bowie’s music for having turned his gift into a commodity? Did this exchange somehow alter how people enjoyed his music?

Would Bowie and Cohen have been greater artists if they had avoided contaminating their gift with market forces? Would they have greater respect if they had lived in penury like Whitman and Pound? Gift exchange, to be sure, in potlatch ceremonies and the South Sea islands, is a splendid ceremony. In the past, if you had tried to sell Bowie bonds to fellow tribe members, you’d surely be run out. But today, we live in a market economy. If you try today to live within the marginal gift economy, you’ll be run out of society like Whitman and Pound. The artist would do well to live in and change with modern times. To me, Hyde’s position is idealistic and seeks a return to what is not there anymore.

Credibility

It’s more enjoyable to read a book when you feel that the author is an expert in whom you can believe. In a chapter called “The Bond,” Hyde argues that materialists treat life like a commodity. He cites a car company that knew of a safety defect but neglected to implement it due to the cost. Here’s the passage:

In a classic example both of cost-benefit analysis and of the confusion between worth and value, the Ford Motor Company had to decide if it should add an inexpensive safety device to its Pinto cars and trucks … In the end, however, Ford decided that benefits did not justify costs, and no safety feature was added to the vehicle. According to Mark Dowie, between 1971, when the Pinto was introduced, and 1977, when the magazine Mother Jones printed Dowie’s analysis of the case, at least five hundred people burned to death in Pinto crashes.

Reading this passage triggered my spider-sense. Elsewhere, Hyde cites sources in detail. No endnote here. And no mention of Dowie in the bibliography. Then there’s the hedge: “According to Mark Dowie.” Elsewhere in the book, people “declare,” “say,” or “explain” the facts. “According to” belies the author’s confidence. And then the final trigger was the qualification of the number of burning deaths as “at least five hundred people burned to death.” Either you are burned to death or not. I expected a whole number, not an indeterminate “at least five hundred.” If that many people perished, I found it amazing that Ford could continue to sell the car for so many years. I decided to do a quick Google search.

The results shook my belief in Hyde. According to the Wikipedia article—which I regard as a neutral source (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ford_Pinto)—the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that “27 deaths were found to have occurred between 1970 and mid-1977 in rear-impact crashes that resulted in fire.” That’s a big difference: 27 versus “at least 500” deaths. The Wikipedia article also discusses the legacy of Dowie’s analysis, the findings of which have been debunked in peer-reviewed law journals.

The Gift is now in its 3rd edition, copyright date 2019. Hyde’s gone through and revised the text. But it’s a shame that he didn’t include a footnote placing an asterisk next to Dowie’s claims. He could have at least mentioned that Dowie’s claims are open to question. Because there isn’t a note, I wonder how often Hyde’s facts are open to interpretation elsewhere in the book.

If You Talk about Money Supply, Please Include a Discussion on Inflation

Hyde asserts that the ideal loan which draws together people in the gift society is the interest-free loan:

In a society that recognizes the right to make a reasonable profit on capital, the equity rate is called the prime rate. Above the prime we have rates for speculators and suspicious strangers. Higher still, we have modern usury, loan sharking, theft by debenture. And below the prime we find various “friendship rates,” which fall to different levels for different degrees of friendship, until we return to the interest-free loan, the pure gift case.

The best loan, one that reinforces the human bonds in Hyde’s ideal gift society, is the interest free loan. By giving the gift of not charging interest, the relationship between creditor and debtor becomes equable. But is this true?

The Gift came out originally in 1983. In the 1980s, inflation in the US averaged 5.82% each year. In the decade prior, inflation averaged 7.25%. Einstein once said that “compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it; he who doesn’t, pays it.” In Hyde’s gift economy, debtors understand inflation—which compounds like compound interest—and creditors have no idea. Creditors, by not charging interest, give their wealth to debtors.

If a creditor in lends $1000 dollars on January 1, 1980 and receives back $1000 dollars on December 1, 1989, he will have lost close to half his money. Because of 5.82% inflation in the 1980s, $1000 in 1989 will only buy you what you could have brought with $567.97 in 1980. This is because of inflation: the $2 loaf of bread in 1980 will cost $3.52 in 1989. The creditor, if he wants to preserve his spending power in the face of inflation, would have to ask the debtor to pay back in 1989 not $1000, but $1760.67. But this, in Hyde’s book, is called usury, frowned upon in the gift society. I would have liked to see Hyde tackle the issue of inflation in his chapter on usury. It’s not as easy as saying: interest free loans preserve relationships. They don’t. Interest free loans ruin the creditor.

Later on in the chapter “Ezra Pound and the Fate of Vegetable Money” a similar issue arises: inflation should be a crucial element of the discussion. But it’s nowhere to be found. “Vegetable money” was Pound’s term for a perishable currency. Pound thought that a perishable currency would encourage the circulation, rather than the hoarding of money. You lose money by having money. Pound advocated German economist Silvio Gesell’s stamp scrip which would lose one percent each month. While inflation in the 1980s wasn’t as drastic—5.82% each year—it achieves the same result: by holding money, you lose money. I was looking forward to a discussion on inflation and Pound’s perishable currency. But inflation is nowhere to be seen. Inflation was the monetary phenomenon of the 1980s. That makes it even more surprising there is not one mention of inflation anywhere in the book.

Walt Whitman

The second half of the book contains two case studies in the gift society. The first looks at poet Walt Whitman. He gave himself to nursing soldiers back to health, teaching illiterate and rude young men to read and write, and writing poetry. These were his gifts to the world. But what did the world give back? Hyde ends the chapter on an enigmatic note. Whitman alone, unloved, and unappreciated finds solace in nature. Whitman believed in the gift society. But what did society give back to him?

Ezra Pound

In exploring the roots of Pound’s antisemitism, Hyde constructs a new portrait of the Jew as a modern incarnation of Hermes, at once the protector of thieves, god of commerce, messenger of the gods, and lord of roads. Was such a new portrait that plays on old caricatures really necessary? But let us suppose that, to explore Pound’s antisemitism, it was somehow necessary and justified. Then the next question: was is also necessary to reproduce Arthur Rackham’s illustration: “The Jew of Hawthorn Hedge” in the chapter on Pound? The illustration also plays on caricatures of Jewishness.

Closing Thoughts

In The Gift, Hyde tells the story of the gift societies of the old day, the societies where artists were cherished and received gifts in turn for sharing their gift of art. These gift societies gave way to market societies, gave way to capitalism, gave way to modern exchanges which no longer valued art and artists. In The Gift, Hyde has given a gift to all those disenfranchised with modernity: his gift is an idealized vision of an abundant past. I found this book to be imbalanced in its criticism of the market economy and its praise for the gift society. Remember, Bronze Age Greece was also a gift society. That didn’t prevent the Achaeans and the Trojans from ravaging their cultures and artists by waging the ruinous Trojan War. The funny thing, however, is that by destroying their cultures, they gave the singers of the future a song to sing for the ages. Perhaps the extinction of the artists—the best of the homo sapiens—under the market economy today will inspire a new epic song, one as big as The Iliad, the poem of force.

In today’s age, Hyde thinks that the artists cannot. I think that they can. And therein lies a quarrel. Hyde’s question, however, remains: why do so many artists fail to find recognition today? I think the answer is that in the old day, the village or the tribe would nominate one person to be the artist, one person to be the seer, and so many people to be farmers, hunters, and gatherers. In short, one did not choose a vocation, or at least did not choose in the same way as we think of it. At a young age, one shows strength: the tribe trains this person for the military life. Another person shows the spark of art: the tribe trains this person for the artistic life. In this way, they look after one another in a mutual compact. Today, however, we ourselves choose to be an artist or a politician or a cobbler. We have this freedom of choice. And we pay for this incredible freedom by sometimes being rejected. I think that, had Walt Whitman or Ezra Pound been born in an earlier age into a gift society, and they had spoken out against the values of the tribe and lived outside the tribal society, they would not have fared much different than they did in the market society in which they actually lived. Artists today fail to find recognition because they have taken risks to become an artist. Some will fail so that others can succeed. That is freedom’s price.

Don’t forget me. I am Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.

Review of NEW DRAMATURGIES – Mark Bly

Routledge, 2020, 121 pages

Reading Bly’s book was a special treat. Here’s the story of how I came across his wonderful book. The National New Play Network (NNPN) invited me to speak at their “We’ve Been Here Before: Theater & Crisis” panel earlier this year. The panel took place during the pandemic and was live-streamed on Zoom. With over 300 people watching, I must admit I was a little nervous. But it was well worth it: one of the folks tuning in was Mark Bly. Sometimes fortune smiles on you. He was interested in what I had to say and got my contact info from Jess Hutchinson, NNPN’s engagement manager. Mark and I struck up a dialogue and exchanged books: I sent him a copy of my theory of tragedy: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected and he sent me New Dramaturgies: Strategies and Exercises for the 21st Century Playwriting.

In New Dramaturgies, Bly presents nine exercises to unleash the beast within the playwright. Are you too focused on writing about personal experiences? No problem. Try “Bly’s myth exercise” and see if your writing takes on a more universal and timeless perspective. Are you experiencing writer’s block? No problem. Try “Bly’s sensory writing exercise” and see how touch, smell, taste, hearing, and the other senses unlock a train of words, rolling and rambling over one another. Are you worried that the forward momentum of your play has stalled? No problem. Try “Bly’s character’s greatest fear” exercise and kickstart the action. As Holly Hepp-Gálvan, one of Bly’s former students, puts it, these exercises “not only get writers writing” but “set them on fire.” The excellent thing about this book is that Bly gives you successful applications of his exercises by his former students, many of which have become top names on the stage and on the screen. That way you can see the exercise in motion. I love it.

When I was younger, I thought to name something after yourself was a prideful thing, something to be avoided. With this mindset, if you were starting a car company, you would name the company after an agile animal such as “Jaguar” instead of naming it after yourself like how Henry Ford did. Now I’m older, I’ve changed my mind. Putting your name on your work gets you skin in the game. When your name is on it, you tell the world you stake your reputation on its quality. Your name, after all, is on it. For example, if you were considering two similar gyms, which one would you instinctively trust more: “The Forge World Class Gym” or “Tom Yankello’s World Class Gym”? Why this digression? All the playwriting exercises in the book are in Bly’s name: “Bly’s music memory exercise,” “Bly’s Einstein’s dreams exercise,” and so on. I like that. Bly has skin in the game. When he says his exercises work, he has a stake in it: his name.

I think of this book as a series of nine studies or études, similar to the Etudes Liszt and Chopin wrote for the piano. Like Liszt and Chopin’s Etudes, they are short exercises that work on specific techniques. And just like Liszt and Chopin, Bly has condensed many years of learning into these Etudes. Although it’s a short book, it’s long on the gems. Here’s one concept Bly recounts (quoting neuroscientist Eagleman) that fascinates me to no end:

There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second is when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is the moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.

When I read this, an epiphany struck me: the third death is the death I fear. Why had I never thought of this before?–a good reason to pick up Bly’s book.

How has New Dramaturgies influenced me? It’s taught me that dramaturgs approach the text unlike academics. My teachers in the classics taught me: if it’s not in the text, it doesn’t exist. You’re not allowed to question concepts, ideas, and realities that lie beyond the text. For dramaturgs and playwrights, however, it’s different. They need to ask the questions that academics shun. They need to ask what drives the characters, and–if the answer isn’t in the text–they need to come up with their own answers. This reminds me of a series of conversations I had with director, playwright, and actor Tony Nardi. He explodes the writer/actor dichotomy by arguing that a writer, in writing, acts and that an actor, in acting, writes. Bly’s book has taught me that fascinating insights happen when you go beyond the text by asking questions such as what a character’s greatest fear or pleasure is. When an actor acts or when a critic interprets, their performance is more powerful when they go beyond the text. When writers go beyond the text, the become actors. And when actors go beyond the text, they become writers.

The series of playwright exercises in New Dramaturgies gave me a crucial insight for which I am very grateful. As part of the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Playwriting Competition, each year I workshop the winning play. As the jurors get closer to announcing the winner, I’ve been thinking of how to run this year’s workshop. I saw how Bly’s exercises, by focusing on a fundamental aspect of playwriting, allowed the play as a whole to become what it must be. Then it occurred to me: the fundamental aspect of playwriting I would focus on in the workshop would be risk. In the risk theatre workshop, we would ask questions such as: what is at stake, why a character goes all-in on an uncertain outcome, why characters up the ante, the role of the unexpected, and so on. Many times, when you’re working on a problem and can’t come up with an answer, if you keep reading, the answer will come to you. Such was the case reading New Dramaturgies.

Book Blurb

In New Dramaturgies: Strategies and Exercises for 21st Century Playwriting, mark Bly offers a new playwriting book with nine unique play-generating exercises. These exercises offer dramaturgical strategies and tools for confronting and overcoming obstacles that all playwrights face. Each of the chapters features lively commentary and participation from Bly’s former students. They are now acclaimed writers and producers from media such as House of Cards, Weeds, Friday Night Lights, Warrior, and The Affair, and their plays appear in major venues such as the Roundabout Theatre, Yale Rep, and the Royal National Theatre. They share thoughts about their original response to an exercise and why it continues to have a major impact on their writing and mentoring today. Each chapter concludes with their original, inventive, and provocative scene generated in response to Bly’s exercise, providing a vivid real-life example of what the exercises can create. Suitable for both students of playwriting and screenwriting, as well as professionals in the field, New Dramaturgies gives readers a rare combination of practical provocation and creative discussion.

Author Blurb

Mark Bly has worked as a dramaturg, director of new play development, and associate artistic director for the Arena Stage, Alley Theatre, Guthrie Theater, La Jolla Playhouse, Seattle Rep, and Yale Rep, producing over 250 plays in a career in theatre spanning more than 40 years. Bly has dramaturged Broadway productions and has been credited as being the first production dramaturg on Broadway for his work on Execution of Justice. Bly has also served as the Director of the MFA Playwriting Programs for the Yale School of Drama, Hunter College, and Fordham/Primary Stages in a nearly 30-year Teaching Artist career. He is the editor and author of The Production Notebooks: Theater in Process Volumes I & II. Bly is an active freelance dramaturg and was the recipient of the LMDA’s G.E. Lessing Award for Career Achievement in 2010 and in 2019 was honored by The Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival with its most prestigious award, The Kennedy Center Medallion of Excellence.

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.

Review of CIVIL WAR – Lucan (translated Matthew Fox)

Penguin, 2012, 537 pages, translated by Matthew Fox

Has there ever been a better time to read Lucan’s Civil War? It’s the story of the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Principate. It’s the story of a world gone mad where a young and brash Caesar takes on Pompey the Great, the grizzled war hero. One leader takes too many risks, the other, too few. One leader has the gods on his side, the other has Cato on his side. The world hangs in balance. No one knows who Fate and Fortune will favour. Though the outcome is uncertain, all the participants in this game of death wager all-in. This is Lucan’s Bellum Civile or Civil War, sometimes also called The Pharsalia, after the famous battle at Pharsalus where, under divided standards, Roman slew Roman.

The Good

The first century critic Quintilian hits the nail on the head when he writes: “Lucan is fiery and excited and most illustrious for his clever phrases [sententiae].” Lucan was Twitter before there was Twitter. Today, he would have broken the internet with his wit on fire:

Caesar could bear none better, Pompey no equal.
Which one took up arms more justly? Knowing that
is not allowed–a high judge acquits each one:
Gods favored the victor, but Cato the lost cause.

The unspoken thought here is that senator and stoic philosopher Cato is equal to the gods. Daring. The image of mortals rising up to challenge the heavens occurs in many of Lucan’s memorable images. Here, for example, he contrasts Caesar to Liberty personified. Guess what?–they are evenly matched:

Flee dire battles
and call the gods to witness that who persists in arms
no longer dies for you, Magnus. Like the losses
in woeful Africa, like ruinous Munda, and the defeat
by the bay of Pharos, so the greater part
of Thessaly’s conflict after your departure
is no longer for Pompey’s world-famous name
nor zeal for war, but it will be the matched duel
that we always have: Liberty versus Caesar.

And here Lucan warns the Emperor Nero (who, ironically, he is planning to assassinate in the Pisonian conspiracy) to be mindful where he sets up his heavenly throne: if Nero sets it in the wrong spot, he would unbalance the cosmos:

When your watch is through
and you seek the stars at last, your chosen court
of heaven will welcome you, delighting the pole.
You could hold the scepter, or you may like to mount
Phoebus’ flame-bearing chariot, range the earth–
unfazed by the change of sun–with roving fire;
whatever you please: each god will cede to you,
and nature will relinquish her right to you
to be what god you will, install your world throne.
But do not choose your seat in Arctic regions,
nor in warm skies inclined to adverse south winds:
from these your gaze on Rome would be aslant.
If you weigh on any one part of boundless space
the axle will feel the load. Keep your weight
to the middle: balance heaven.

There’s no need for gods in Civil War because mortals can take the immortals’ places.

The Bad

Lucan’s Civil War is full of gladiatorial spectacle. In this regard, it’s similar to other Silver Age Latin works. The tragedies of Lucan’s uncle, Seneca the Younger, are also full of macabre scenes befitting of B-movie horror films. Maybe in some future age these scenes will come back into vogue. Here’s one of many such passages from Civil War:

That day offered
many marvelous forms of death upon the sea.
An iron claw swings quickly up onto a ship
and hooks Lycidas. He would have sunk in the deep,
but his comrades grab and hold him by the shins.
He is ripped to pieces, and his blood does not flow slowly
as from a wound, but floods everywhere from open veins,
and his soul that circulated through his various limbs
is absorbed by water. Nobody’s life has ever fled
through so large a passageway. His bottom half
took to death the limbs that had no seat of life.
But where the heaving lungs lay and the guts glistened,
there his fate was stalled; this half of the man
struggled a long time, till finally death got him all.

The Ugly

The speeches by the leading characters all seem to be spoken by the same voice: Lucan’s. They are all manic caricatures of their character types. Erictho, in conjuring the nether powers, becomes, not a witch, but the caricature of evil:

“If I call on you with a mouth that’s sinful
and polluted enough, if I never sing these songs
while still famishing for human entrails,
if I’ve often bathed a hacked-up breast
still full of soul divine and brains still warm,
if any infant whose insides and head I’ve laid
upon your platters would have lived if I had not–
obey me as I pray!”

Who talks like that? Or take the nihilistic Pompey. On the morning of the Battle of Pharsalus, he exhorts his troops thus:

“If all agree with this,” he said,
“and if the time needs Magnus as a soldier,
not as leader, I won’t transgress the Fates by stalling.
Let Fortune envelop the nations in one downfall,
let this day’s light be the last for a large portion
of humankind. But I call you to witness, Rome!
Magnus welcomes this day when all will perish.”

Who exhorts troops like that? Magnus becomes a caricature of fate. So too, the do-gooding Cato, exhorting the troops after the grievous loss at Pharsalus, becomes a caricature of virtue:

“You who have chosen to follow my standards
as the one safe thing, with unconquered necks
and unto death–train your minds on our great task,
the utmost toils of virtue. We are heading
for barren plains, the world’s burned-out wastes,
where Sun is too hot, water rare in the springs,
and dry fields crawl with deadly serpents.
The path to law and order is hard, and so is
the love of our fatherland, now falling to ruin.”

Some say that Cato and Pompey are the heroes of Civil War. I’m not so sure. They have become such concentrated versions of themselves that it’s hard to take them seriously. Caesar too is a caricature, but he is a caricature of action. He is Goethe’s Faust before there was Faust and Nietzsche’s will to power before there was a will to power. For example, when under siege and about to perish, Lucan’s Caesar is still acting and planning as though he was the besieger going forth conquering, and a conqueror. There is something attractive in his never say die mentality. The same cannot be said about the cardboard cutout characters Pompey and Lucan.

Fate and Fortune

A primary consideration in epic poetry from Homer to Milton is the antinomy between fate and free will. I published an article on fate and free will in the journal Antichthon. If you’re interested, it’s available here. In the Iliad, Zeus hold the scales of fate. If he holds the scales of fate, it would seem that fate bends to Zeus’ will. But it’s not so clear: when the scales of fate doom his mortal son Sarpedon, all Zeus can do is watch. Even though he holds the scales, the scales seem to operate on a higher level of agency. So too the devils in Milton’s Paradise Lost can be seen continuing the discussion Homer began so long ago in the Iliad:

Others apart sat on a hill retired,
In thoughts more elevate, and reasoned high
Of providence, foreknowledge, will, and fate,
Fixed fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute,
And found no end, in wandering mazes lost.

Unsurprisingly, Lucan also explores the generic convention of fate and free will in Civil War. Instead of fate and free will, however, in Lucan it becomes the antinomy between fate and fortune.

In Lucan, certain events are fated. Roman civil war itself is fated. Rome had become too great. Civil war is the mechanism for nations to return to nature’s mean:

Great things rush to ruin: the powers that give bounty
have set this limit on increase. Not to any foreign
nations did Fortune lend her envy to use
against the people ruling on land and sea.
Made slaves of three masters, you caused the damage,
Rome, with fatal bonds of tyranny never before
loosed against the crowd. Foul concord! Blinded
by depths of greed! What use to unite your strength
to hold the world in common? As long as earth
shall light on sea and air on earth, and labors
keep the Sun revolving, night following day
through the same sum of signs, no pledge to reign
as peers will hold. All power is impatient of equals.

Unlike in Homer and Milton where fate is fate and free will is free will, Lucan’s fate is more like Virgil’s fate where–though it is true that certain events are fated to happen (such as founding Rome)–the actions of mortals and immortals can precipitate or delay fate. So, Virgil’s Juno says:

But I, great wife of Jove–who left no thing
undared, who tried all ways in wretchedness–
am beaten by Aeneas. If my power
is not enough, I shall not hesitate
to plead for more, from anywhere; if I
cannot bend High Ones, then I shall move hell.
I cannot keep him from the Latin kingdoms:
so be it, let Lavinia be his wife,
as fates have fixed. But I can still hold off
that moment and delay these great events.

There’s an echo of Juno in Lucan, through the mouth of Erictho:

The evil Thessalian, thrilled to hear her name
was famous and well known, responded, “If you’d asked
of lesser fates, young man, it would have been easy
to rouse unwilling gods and attain your wish.
My art can cause delay when the rays of stars
have marked one death, or even if all constellations
would grant one an old age, we can cut his years
in half with magic herbs. But once a series of causes
has descended from the world’s first origin
and all fates struggle if you want to change anything,
when the human race is subject to a single blow,
then Thessaly’s ilk admits it–Fortune is stronger.

Fate, in Lucan’s Civil War, is like fate in Virgil’s Aeneid: you can speed it up or put it off a few years, but the hour of doom comes sooner or later. But notice a strange tilt in Lucan. Whereas fate and free will are at odds in Homer, Virgil, and Milton, Lucan uses fate and fortune interchangeably: fortune is stronger than Erictho’s resources when fate decrees it must be so. This deserves attention.

Some of you may know about my theory of tragedy based on risk. I argue that risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. It is also profitable to analyze risk in Civil War. The world of Civil War is one that rewards risk takers. Two characters in Lucan’s epic get things done: Caesar becomes top dog and Cleopatra wrestles her kingdom back from her brother. What do they have in common?–both Caesar and Cleopatra throw risk to the winds. Lucan’s Caesar and Cleopatra are both daring, both reckless. They are risk takers, natural-born gamblers.

Cleopatra, for her part, sneaks into the palace to seduce Caesar:

Such a daring spirit she got from that first night
when our own generals lay wrapped up in bed
with Ptolemy’s incestuous daughter. Who
will not forgive your raving love for her, Antony,
when fire even consumed the hard heart of Caesar?

Caesar, for his part, also does what needs to be done, risk be damned:

But Caesar, reckless in everything,
thinks nothing is done if anything’s left to be done.

While the narrator in Civil War pays homage to Cato and Pompey, the gamblers come out ahead. In a way, Civil War says one thing, but does another. It keeps the reader guessing what the actual message is, if there is any message.

Skin in the Game

A few years ago, Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote a fantastic book: Skin in the Game. Success, he argued, happens when you have skin in the game, when you have a stake in the outcome. Caesar and Pompey’s speech to the troops illustrates the importance of having skin in the game. Compare how they address their troops:

Pompey: If all agree with this
and the time needs Magnus as a soldier,
not as leader, I won’t transgress the Fates by stalling.
Let Fortune envelop the nations in one downfall,
let this day’s light be the last for a large portion
of humankind. But I call you to witness, Rome!
Magnus welcomes this day when all will perish.
. . .
I’d wish the first lance of this deadly war
would pierce this head, if it could fall without
upsetting the balance, or destroying our party.
For victory will not bring more joy to Magnus.
Today, once this massacre’s been committed,
Pompey will be a name that’s either hated
or pitied by all peoples. This final cast of lots
for everything will bring all evils on the vanquished.
All the guilt will fall upon the victor.

Caesar: Breaker of the world, in all my affairs the fortune,
soldier, the riches of battle so often longed for
lie at hand. There’s no more need for prayers.
Summon fate now with your sword! In your hands
you hold the greatness of Caesar! Today is the day
I remember was promised me at the Rubicon’s waves,
and looking forward to this we took up arms,
postponing our return for triumphs denied us
until today, which will prove, with Fate as witness,
who took up arms more justly. This engagement
will render the loser guilty. If for me you’ve assaulted
your fatherland with fire and iron, fight now
all the more savagely and with your sword
free yourselves from guilt. For if the other side
becomes the judge of war, no hand will be clean.
This struggle is not for me, but so that the lot of you
might be free, hold power over all nations,
that’s my prayer.

Pompey asks the senate troops to fight for God knows what. Caesar, on the other hand, gives his troops skin in the game. The troops, he tells them, fight for Caesar’s greatness. Not only that, they fight for the triumphs the senate denied them. And, on top of that, they fight for their freedom: if they lose, they will be punished as traitors. They fight for their lives and win. This is the power of skin in the game. Caesar knows the power of skin in the game. Pompey doesn’t. To me, this is one of the mysteries of Lucan’s Civil War: for all the narrator extols Pompey, Pompey is sure dense. With that sort of exhortation, of course he gets routed at Pharsalus.

A Note on the Translator’s Introduction

I was surprised to see this passage in the translator’s introduction:

Alexander was a notorious admirer of Homer and Achilles: Caesar, too, is possessed by the glorious myths of Troy. If history-as-narrative had derived from the deep stream of Homeric epic, history-as-action was also always driven by men who were avid readers of epic, fired by its prize of immortal glory for heroic exploits. But it is possible these great men are simply, but tragically, poor readers of epic, deriving from it the wrong lessons, deluded by false notions of the heroic. After all, Achilles’ rage was “destructive” and for himself it results only in grief and the noble gesture of pity for his fallen enemy, the fatherly king Priam. [emphasis added]

If Alexander and Caesar are poor readers of epic, then who is the good reader of epic, the one who can derive from epic the correct lesson?

In all likelihood, many readings of poetry, epic, and literature are possible. For those seeking immortal glory, the myths of Troy have their allure. And that is all. There is no lesson. I don’t think Homer was meaning to say: “Look, I said Achilles’ rage was “destructive,” look what it did to poor Priam. Please don’t be like Achilles. He’s not a good role model.” That’s what the translator’s introduction seems to say to me, that the translators are good readers of epic, and, as good readers, have correctly derived the lesson Homer was trying to teach readers, that attaining immortal glory for heroic exploits is wrong because of all the suffering it involves.

Epic is life transformed into immortal glory. Sure, there’s suffering and destruction, but that’s the price. Don’t believe me? Then take Helen’s words in Homer’s Iliad to heart (Helen to Hector):

But come now, come in and rest on this chair, my brother,
since it is on your heart beyond all that the hard work has fallen
for the sake of dishonoured me and the blind act of Alexandros,
us two, on whom Zeus has set a vile destiny so that hereafter
we shall be made into things of song for the men of the future.

Suffering is justified, says Helen, so that we can be remembered forever. So too the destructive civil war allows Lucan to make Caesar and Pompey into a song for the men of the future (narrator speaking):

O sacred mighty work of poet-seers,
you rescue everything from fate and grant
eternal life to mortal peoples. Caesar,
don’t be touched by envy of sacred glory.
For if Latin Muses have a right to make a promise,
as long as Smyrna’s singer endures in honor,
the future will read you and me: our Pharsalia
will live, not condemned to shadows in any age.

For so much destruction, we have Lucan’s Pharsalia, otherwise called Civil War. In future ages, those who seek eternal renown will add the name of Caesar to the roll-call of heroes who achieved immortality. And also in future ages, someone too will tell these glory seekers that they are poor readers of epic. But who will be remembered–the glory seekers or their critics? Would you rather be a good reader who is forgotten soon or a poor reader who is remembered forever?

I wanted to like Lucan’s Civil War more than I did. Lucan, if Fortune had vouchsafed you to write Civil War in your seventies, you would have outshone Virgil and rivalled Milton and Homer. But as it was, fate cut you down at age 25. Those whom the gods love die young.

Book Blurb

Lucan lived from AD 39-65 at a time of great turbulence in Rome. His Civil War portrays two of the most colorful and powerful figures of the age–Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great, enemies in a bloody and convulsive struggle for power that severed bloodlines and began the transformation of Roman civilization. As law and order broke down, the anarchy that resulted left its mark on the Roman people forever, paving the way for the imperial monarchy. Matthew Fox’s verse translation brings Civil War to life for a new generation of readers while retaining the rhetorical brilliance of the original, creating a new definitive edition of this classic.

Author Blurb

Marcus Annaeus Lucanus (A.D. 39-65) was the nephew of the philosopher Seneca and close friend of the young emperor Nero, until a poetic rivalry and possibly political differences led to their falling out and Lucan being banned from both reciting his poetry in public and pleading in the law courts. He was a prolific and popular poet, but his only work to survive is his Civil War, a trenchantly anti-Caesarean epic about the fateful struggle between the rival leaders Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great, which ended in disaster for the Roman Senate at Pharsalus in 48 B.C., the battle which forms the poem’s dramatic climax. In A.D. 65, after the great fire had ravaged Rome and with much discontent against Nero simmering across the empire, Lucan joined the Pisonian conspiracy to assassinate the emperor, which failed and resulted in the execution by forced suicide of many of those involved. Along with his uncle, the author Petronius, and many other prominent Romans, Lucan took his own life, reputedly dying while reciting defiant verses from his epic. Since antiquity Lucan’s poem has been read as part of the classical canon, alongside the works of Virgil and Ovid. Its influence on the literary tradition from medieval to modern times is considerable, while Lucan’s death created a legacy of literary-political martyrdom that fired the imagination of revolutionary thinkers from the Renaissance to the many revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Translator Blurb

Matthew Fox studied Classical Languages and Literature at the University of Oregon and earned his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Classics at Princeton. He has taught classics, anthropology, humanities, and writing at Princeton, St. Peter’s College (NJ), Deep Springs College (CA), where he held the Robert B. Aird Chair in Humanities, and Rutgers University, and now teaches at Whitman College (WA). His research focuses on the classical epic tradition and ancient cultures of poetic and musical performance.

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.

Review of “Tragedy and Feminism” – Victoria Wohl

pages 145-160 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

Feminism’s Love-Hate Relationship with Tragedy

“Tragedy,” writes Wohl, “is the humanist genre par excellence, treating the questions that seem most profoundly to define mankind.” And therein lies a problem. How much do women partake in the world of mankind? On the one hand, Greek tragedy is filled with powerful and dynamic female characters: Clytemnestra in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and Medea in Euripides’ Medea, to name a few. But on the other hand, feminist scholars have been suspicious that tragedy builds up the female only to demolish her in the face of the male. The dramatic arc in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon-Libation Bearers-Eumenides trilogy–otherwise called The Oresteia–begins, for example, begins with the rule of woman and ends with the rule of man.

In addition to male writers’ questionable motives for creating powerful female characters, Wohl finds another facet of Greek tragedy disturbing. Greek tragedy, as a literary artifact of the ancient world, preserves the misogyny prevalent in a society where women could not vote, could not own property, could not represent themselves in court, were relegated inside the household, could not perform in the theatre, and could not even attend the theatre as spectators (this last point is a matter of debate). As an artifact of a misogynist society, characters in Attic tragedy frequently voice sexist musings, such as when Jason in Medea says: “It would be better if men found another way to bear children and there were no race of women.”

Because of the power imbalance between the male and the female, because tragedy was a mouthpiece of male playwrights, and because tragedy gives voice to the embedded misogyny of fifth century Athens, feminist critics such as Wohl have a love-hate relationship with tragedy. On one hand, tragedy, as the humanist genre par excellence which examines the hard-hitting questions that define mankind, is most beautiful. But as the mouthpiece of misogyny, tragedy is most ugly.

First Wave Feminism in Greek Tragedy

For a long time, writes Wohl, the scholarly tradition ignored the role of women in classical antiquity. That all changed in 1975 with Sarah Pomeroy’s book Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves. Pomeroy looked to tragedy as a source of information about how women lived. Her groundbreaking book launched the first wave of feminism in Greek tragedy.

First wave feminism gave priority to Euripides’ plays. Euripides had a reputation for allowing his female characters to speak freely. In the comic playwright Aristophanes’ play Frogs, for example, the fictional character Euripides claims that he gave women a voice in his plays. Aeschylus and Sophocles were less useful.

The aim of first wave feminism was to extract the lives of real women from the tragic text. It is an empiricist approach that considered that the lives of real women are knowable. In first wave feminism, the female character was considered a sign that, properly decoded by a scholar, could shed light on women’s lives in antiquity. What did first wave feminism discover about real woman’s lives? It discovered that the freedoms women enjoyed differed city to city. Women did better in Sparta than Athens (ever notice that many of the powerful female protagonists in tragedy are, like Medea, foreigners?). And it discovered that in the higher social classes, a woman who was a whore may have had more freedom than a freeborn wife.

Second Wave of Feminism in Greek Tragedy

At some point, the authority of the author as a creator of meaning gave way to the view that the author does not create meaning. The creation of meaning became an interpretive act that the reader or theatregoer was responsible for. Roland Barthes’ 1967 essay “The Death of the Author” kicked off this view. If the author was not responsible for the message and the meaning of the text, it becomes harder to extrapolate the lives of real women on Euripides’ authority: after the death of the author, Euripides had no authority. A new approach was required.

The second wave of feminism began with Helene Foley’s 1981 article: “The Conception of Women in Athenian Drama.” Instead of extrapolating the lives of real women from the text, second wave feminists explored the cultural concept of woman. This was the new approach after the death of the author, an approach where, as Foley writes: “The Athenian audience must have brought to their experience of the remarkable women of drama a way of understanding these characters which grew out of their psychological, religious, political, and social lives and problems.” The writer-creator was dead. The reader-interpreter is born.

By exploring the representation of woman in tragedy, second wave feminists learned about the society that created such characters. The Clytemnestras and Medeas, they concluded, were the creations of a deeply misogynistic society where the female was associated with disorder and the male with order. Tragedy seemed to say that, for a world to arise and to found civilization, the male must tame the female.

Second wave feminism also added an extra dimension to interpretation. While female characters in first wave feminism were considered to be signs of the lives of real women, second wave feminism added the notion that female characters could be signs as well as generators of signs. Mind you, they were still stuck in androcentric texts written by male playwrights, but this addition increased the range and depth of study, as it brought Aeschylus and Sophocles back into the fold. Because female characters spoke with less freedom in Aeschylus and Sophocles, first wave feminism had little use for either of them. They preferred Euripides. But when you consider that Aeschylus and Sophocles were two of the three pieces of “the big three,” it is a grievous loss. Second wave feminism welcomed back Aeschylus and Sophocles.

By allowing female characters to function as a generator of signs allowed feminists to study captivating female characters such as Clytemnestra. Second wave feminists such as Froma Zeitlin looked at how attention to fictional female characters within tragedy can tell us about the world of tragedy. Zeitlin found, for example, that empowered female characters such as Clytemnestra could generate signs. Clytemnestra is saying something by playing with feminine tropes–such as pouring a hot bath–when she destroys Agamemnon. Generating signs is a itself a sign of will. Although Clytemnestra generates signs, she never gets what she wants: the tragedy isn’t written around her. She could be the star. But she is only a blocker character. A male character, Orestes, is the star. Conclusion? Women are prominent in tragedy not for the sake of woman, but to illuminate the male world.

Third Wave of Feminism in Greek Tragedy

If first wave feminism tells us about the lives of real woman and second wave feminism tell us about the lives of women within tragedy, what does third wave feminist research tell us? Hint: do you remember the 1987 Oliver Stone movie Wall Street? Soon after the movie came out, if you went down to the trading floor, you’d see the brokers wearing suspenders. The funny thing is that they didn’t wear suspenders before the movie came out. What happened? Life imitates art is what happened. Third wave feminism’s breakthrough was the realization that the representation of women on the stage shapes the lives of women off the stage.

Third wave feminists include Victoria Wohl herself and scholars such as Barbara Goff (author of The Noose of Words: Readings of Desire, Violence, and Language in Euripides’ Hippolytus and History, Tragedy, Theory: Dialogues on Athenian Drama) and Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz (author of Anxiety Veiled: Euripides and the Traffic of Women and Feminist Theory and the Classics). While third wave feminists agree that tragedy shapes culture and society, they disagree on tragedy’s directive in doing so.

The disagreement between third wave feminists can be broken down into two competing camps: the optimists and the pessimists. The optimists, such as Wohl, believe that feminine resistance in Greek tragedy accelerates progressive social change. “By giving a public voice to those who were normally silent in the political arena,” writes Foley, “tragedy can open fresh perspectives on and restore some balance to a civic life and dialogue otherwise dominated by citizen males.” Pessimists such as Rabinowitz, however, find that heroines’ brief moments of glory reinforce male control over women. The function of tragedy, according to the pessimists, is to reinforce the status quo of male control of the female.

Feminism and the Risk Theatre Theory of Tragedy

Is tragedy propaganda reinforcing the status quo? Or is tragedy revolution, the spark that ignites change? I don’t think dramatists in fifth century Athens, when they were writing tragedy, were thinking: “How can I create a play to reinforce male dominion over woman?” If they did, their plays would constitute propaganda. Propaganda plays fail to entertain. Anyone who thinks a propaganda play can be successful may want to look at Mussato’s Ecerinis. His tragedy schools theatregoers on the dangers of tyrants. It is not very good. Greek tragedy, however, is very good. For this reason, I don’t think fifth century dramatists were thinking: “How can I uphold the misogynistic status quo in my play?” as they wrote their plays. If they had this thought in mind, they would have written poor plays.

Was tragedy, then, revolution, a firebrand to ignite change? Tragedy was a civic festival sponsored by the city to celebrate the city. As one of Athens’ largest and most prestigious festivals, it would be an odd place to incite revolution. For this reason, I don’t think dramatists in fifth century Athens, when they were writing tragedy, were thinking: “How can I give a public voice to those who are normally silent?” If they had this thought in mind, they city would likely have removed their funding.

If they were neither reinforcing the status quo nor giving voice to the oppressed, what were the tragedians aiming to achieve when they wrote tragedy? According to my risk theatre theory of tragedy, when playwrights wrote plays, they were thinking: “How can I create the most thrilling play, one that will wow the audiences?” To create the most thrilling play, they made risk the dramatic fulcrum of the action. They chose risk because risk triggers the unexpected outcomes that wowed audiences. So Euripides tells us in the concluding lines of many of his plays:

What heaven sends has many shapes, and many things the gods accomplish against our expectation. What men look for is not brought to pass, but a god finds a way to achieve the unexpected. Such was the outcome of this story.

Because there were two types of risk–upside and downside–two types of dramatists arose. The ones who loved to dramatize downside risk became known as tragedians. And the ones who loved to dramatize upside risk became known as comedians. But whatever type of dramatist you became, you explored risk because risk is inherently dramatic. Risk triggers what the audience expects, namely, the unexpected ending.

To thrill audiences, tragedians would place society’s most sanctified values at risk. “What would happen,” they asked, “if we explode society’s strongest bonds?” “What would happen,” they asked, “if we show how love makes us most vulnerable to hurt, destruction, and grief?” As tragedians formulated their questions, they found a fertile ground in the tensions between men and women. To exploit the full dramatic potential of these tensions, tragedians needed women who could go toe to toe with the men. In a way, because of fifth century prejudices against women, for women to be able to go head to head with men, the women of tragedy had to be better and more talented than their male counterparts. In turn, the men in tragedy are often less clever and capable, as they have the tailwind of an androcentric society to prop them up.

In a risk theatre feminist reading, it is out of dramatic necessity, not a benevolent desire to improve women’s conditions or a malevolent desire to oppress women, that we have dynamic characters such as Clytemnestra, Medea, and Phaedra. What do you get when you put together powerhouse female characters with hotheaded male characters? You get unexpected endings. It is this unexpected ending that drew audiences back to tragedy again and again. Powerful female characters, in this light, are born out of dramatic necessity, a literary artifact.

That we have powerhouse female characters, of course, does not mean that women on stage were men’s equals. On stage, women are equal to men in their desire, but not in their power. The power disparity between the male and the female is not unlike the difference in power between mortals and immortals, another fertile source of inspiration for tragedians. Consider this beautiful passage from Homer’s Iliad where the god Apollo reminds the mortal Achilles that man is not god:

Then Phoebus Apollo spoke to the son of Peleus saying, “Why, son of Peleus, do you, who are but man, give chase to me who am immortal? Have you not yet found out that it is a god whom you pursue so furiously? You did not harass the Trojans whom you had routed, and now they are within their walls, while you have been decoyed hither away from them. Me you cannot kill, for death can take no hold upon me.” 

Achilles was greatly angered and said, “You have baulked me, Far-Darter, most malicious of all gods, and have drawn me away from the wall, where many another man would have bitten the dust ere he got within Ilius; you have robbed me of great glory and have saved the Trojans at no risk to yourself, for you have nothing to fear, but I would indeed have my revenge if it were in my power to do so.” 

A few things are telling in Achilles’ response. To Achilles, the difference between mortals and immortals isn’t that one is wiser or better looking or longer lasting. The difference, to Achilles, is only in the quanta of power they wield: “I would indeed have my revenge,” says Achilles, “if it were in my power to do so.” The difference between mortals and immortals does not lie in their physical or mental qualities, nor in their aspirations, dreams, and desires. The difference is that one has more power than the other.

In Achilles’ interaction with Apollo, he plays the female: he is mortal, Apollo is immortal. If we apply Achilles’ rebuke to Apollo to the dynamic between males and females, what we get is the female saying to the male: “I would have my way, if it were in my power to do so.” I think this is what we get in tragedy. Just like Achilles in the face of Apollo, the female is, in tragedy, everything the equal to the male, except in power. In all her physical and mental qualities, and also in her aspirations, dreams, and desires, the female is the male’s equal. In this way, tragedy was a progressive art. But it was not progressive for the sake of women. It was progressive because it made for a more entertaining play.

A feminist risk theatre reading of tragedy opens the doors to new avenues of research. Does the changing power differential between men and women from Aeschylus to Sophocles and Euripides signify a change between men and women in the real world? Does the power disequilibrium between mortals and immortals shed light on the disequilibrium between men and women in fifth century Athens? What happens when the power differential between mortals and immortals is mapped onto the relationships between men and women?  And what about the immortals themselves?–how is gender constructed in high Olympus? If, as Euripides says, the function of tragedy is to dramatize unexpected outcomes, how do playwrights exploit the tensions between men and women to supercharge risk? A ton of possibilities emerges from a feminist risk theatre reading of tragedy.

The Next Wave of Feminism in Tragedy

What’s next in feminist philology? If first wave feminism was to explore the lives of real women, second wave feminism to explore the “lives” of women in the text, and third wave feminism to explore the influence the text has on reality, perhaps fourth wave feminism will be to explore what our changing interpretations of women in antiquity say about us ourselves in modernity? In critiquing misogyny and bad practises in the ancient world, perhaps we also expose some of our own underlying deficiencies? If history is any indication, some of our best and most progressive ideas will be judged quite harshly in the coming centuries, if not sooner. Like in theatre, unintended consequences attend the most noble intentions.

One thing that Wohl points out is that, no matter the stature of women in the ancient play, she still exists in an androcentric text written by a male author. With playwright competitions such as the Risk Theatre Modern Tragedy Competition (https://risktheatre.com/), we are seeing more and more new tragedies being written by female tragedians. In 2020, 89 male playwrights and 46 female playwrights entered. Although two-thirds of the entries this year were by male playwrights, this is much better than antiquity where 100% of the surviving plays are by male playwrights. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see a bold new 21st century tragedy with powerful and dynamic male and female characters interacting within a gynocentric instead of an androcentric text? And what fun that would be for feminist scholars to critique. Soon.

Author Blurb

Victoria Wohl is Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Toronto. She is the author of Intimate Commerce: Exchange, Gender, and Subjectivity in Greek Tragedy (1998) and Love Among the Ruins: The Erotics of Democracy in Classical Athens (2003).

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.

Review of The Canterbury Tales – Chaucer

pages 61-359 in The Portable Chaucer, translated by Theodore Morrison, Viking 1949

Author Blurb

Chaucer is the cornerstone of English poetry, and he gave to the world exactly what a great poet should give: new types of fictional characters, new expressions of human feeling, and a unique personal style. This volume brings together some of the choicest riches from the heritage left us by this fourteenth-century genius, put into modern English by Theodore Morrison, who is himself a gifted poet. He has admirably succeeded in producing a faithful rendition of the original, recapturing Chaucer in all his earthy vigor and timeless humanity, while removing what to many readers is the obstacle of the Middle English idiom.

Translator Blurb

Apparently in the 1940s this was not a necessary section of the book.

The Canterbury Tales

What a splendid and vigorous work. When one of the Wife of Bath’s husbands recites to her night after night the stories of bad women (Eve, Delilah, Eriphyle, Deianeira, etc.,), she clocks him one and rips apart his book. When the drunk Miller tells a tale of a cuckolded carpenter, the Reeve–who is a carpenter–returns the favour by telling a tale of students who have extra-curricular fun with a dishonest Miller’s wife and daughter. Some of the travellers are too drunk to stay on their horses. The details of their adventures are quite graphic as well. Chaucer’s stories remind me more of Catullus poems about getting ‘radished’ than later English literature. While later English poetry becomes more refined, it loses Chaucer’s vital drive. If you like music, it is sort of like Baroque versus Classical: Baroque, while earlier, is much more rhythmically intense and forwards hurtling.

This was a fun book to read. I hadn’t expected it would be. The last book I had read from the Middle Ages was the Venerable Bede’s history of the church, and that was decidedly less entertaining. I think what makes Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales so vibrant is that the character types are instantly recognizable from the drunk cook to the greedy summoner to the assiduous student. Human nature has not changed all that much from the 1400s.

Chaucer’s characters represent a cross section of occupations in the Late Middle Ages. One fun exercise to see how things have changed since the 1400s is to see which occupations survived. Have you met the trades Chaucer encounters? Here are my answers, yours may be different:

Inn Owner – YES, I have met latter-day hoteliers
Knight – NO, I have not encountered any knights in my days
Squire – NO
Yeoman – NO (a yeoman is someone who owned land that would yield an annual income of 40 shillings. This is interesting, as in the feudal system they valued land by the income it rendered rather than the price of the land itself)
Prioress – NO, I have not encountered any prioresses
Nun – YES, I have never talked with a nun, but I have seen them abroad
Monk – YES, I have never talked with a monk, but I have seen one, and in my hometown
Friar – NO
Merchant – YES
Clerk – YES
Lawyer – YES
Franklin – NO, though the position is remembered in surnames, e.g. Benjamin Franklin
Craftsmen – YES
Cook – YES
Shipman – YES
Physician – YES (thank goodness they practise the modern variants of astrology and humorism)
Wife of Bath – YES
Parson – YES
Plowman – NO
Miller – NO
Manciple – YES, though they are called purchasers instead of manciples
Reeve – NO
Summoner – NO
Pardoner – NO
Canon -NO

Of the 25 common occupations in the 1400s, 13, or about half, are known to me. In several hundred years, perhaps half of today’s occupations will still be around. It’s hard to believe, isn’t it? One thing that reading classics gives us is an appreciation of the larger picture. And Canterbury Tales, which continues to be read over 600 years later, is well-equipped to show us how some things have changed and how some things have stayed exactly the same.

The Canterbury Tales and the Art Form of Tragedy

One thing that, unfortunately, hasn’t changed much from the 1400s to today is the popular reaction to the dramatic art form of tragedy. Two of the storytellers in Canterbury Tales tell tragic tales: the Monk and the Physician. The reactions of the other pilgrims to the Monk’s Tale gives you an idea of the general lack of appetite for tragedy at that time (Knight and Host speaking to Monk):

“Stop!” cried the Knight. “No more of this, good sir!
You have said plenty, and much more, for sure,
For only a little such lugubriousness
Is plenty for a lot of folk, I guess.
I say for me it is a great displeasure,
When men have wealth and comfort in good measure,
To hear how they have tumbled down the slope.
And the opposite is a solace and a hope,
As when a man begins in low estate
And climbs the ladder and grows fortunate,
And stands there firm in his prosperity.
That is a welcome thing, it seems to me,
And of such things it would be good to tell.”

“Well said,” our Host declared. “By St. Paul’s bell,
You speak the truth; this Monk’s tongue is too loud.
He told how fortune covered with a cloud–
I don’t know what-all; and of tragedy
You heard just now, and it’s no remedy,
When things are over and done with, to complain.
Besides, as you have said, it is a pain
To hear of misery; it is distressing.
Sir Monk, no more, as you would have God’s blessing
This company is all one weary sigh.
Such talking isn’t worth a butterfly.

The reaction to tragedy today isn’t much different. With so much storm and strife happening in life, people today echo the Host and the Knight’s cry: “Enough of tragedy, give us musicals and comedys!” This is a shame, as the art form of tragedy–by dramatizing the amazing twists and turns of fortune–is one of the greatest shows on earth. How can tragedy be repackaged so that people say instead: “More tragedy please!”

If you ask these same people who don’t like tragedy: “Would you be interested in seeing a show on uncertainty and chance?” they would say: “Yes!” The same events responsible for the storm and strife in life have created a groundswell of interest in the role uncertainty and chance play in life. All of a sudden, people are saying: “Wow, the unexpected sure has stolen us on us. How did this happen? I am interested in chance and the unexpected. Where can I learn more?” This is the ticket in repackaging and reimagining tragedy for the 21st century.

To me, tragedy is synonymous with the dramatization of low-probability, high-consequence events: they are one and the same. The only difference is that the Hosts and the Knights have no stomach for tragedy while everyone loves anything to do with uncertainty and chance. So why not repackage tragedy as a theatre of risk?

This is exactly what I’ve done in my new, 21st century theory of tragedy called “risk theatre.” If you’re curious, ask your local library to carry a copy of my book on literary theory. It’s called The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy. Risk theatre is the theatre that dramatizes what every theatregoer wants to see: the impact of the highly improbable. If you like the old name, call it tragedy. If you like the new name, call it risk theatre. They are one and the same. The king is dead, long live the king.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

Review of “Tragedy and Materialist Thought” – Hugh Grady

pages 128-144 in A Companion to Tragedy, ed. Rebecca Bushnell, Blackwell 2009

What is Grady’s Materialism?

Grady comes from a line of critics that include Raymond Williams and Terry Eagleton. Like Williams and Eagleton, he approaches tragedy from a political perspective. “Materialism” to Grady is a combination of three strands of theory that began in the 1980s: American new historicism, British cultural materialism, and international feminism. Marx and Engels themselves used the term “materialism” to describe their method of analysis, and, in the end, these three strands can be traced back to the founders of Marxism. The Oxford English Dictionary gives the definition of “dialectical materialism” as:

The Marxist theory of political and historical events as due to the conflict of social forces caused by humans’ material needs and interpretable as a series of contradictions and their solutions.

In this article, Grady argues that materialists who deny that tragedy has a universal meaning go too far. Materialists have denied the view that tragedy has an unchanging and static form because such as view smacks of right wing conservative political views. Materialists, by definition, espouse left wing Marxist political views. Materialists who deny tragedy’s universal significance, argues Grady, do disservices to the Left, as it surrenders the art of tragedy to the Right. If materialists can allow that tragedy from Aeschylus to O’Neill has a universal function, the Left can wrest the discourse of tragedy back from the Right. Underlying Grady’s view is the belief that materialist thought can decode tragedy’s secrets:

Materialist thought, I believe, if it is redirected, is a major, probably the major vehicle through which to rethink tragedy for the twenty-first century.

If tragedy does not have a universal significance, it at least appears to have a transhistorical dimension: it springs up in fifth century Athens, in the English Renaissance, in the neoclassical French writers, the German romantics, and finally arrived in America with Miller and O’Neill. How can materialism, which denies tragedy’s universal significance, take into account tragedy’s transhistorical dimension? Grady grapples with this question in this article.

Look to Hegel

If Marx’ struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat is Hegel made political, then perhaps there is also some kind of universal, transhistorical, and Hegelian dynamic at play in tragedy. Or so Grady argues. Grady finds this dynamic in tragedy in the collision between two problematic forms of rationality. Hegel’s model of synthesis and antithesis provides the bridge for the Left to incorporate tragedy’s transhistorical dimension into a new theory or materialism.

Grady illustrates Hegelian dialectic at work in tragedy through Shakespeare’s King Lear:

The play seems to follow a more Hegelian pattern, posing two problematic forms of rationality against each other, enacting the defeat of tradition by modernizing instrumental reason, only to show the subsequent collapse of instrumental reason. At the end of King Lear, especially, the audience is teased, made to imagine hope and despair, as Cordelia and Lear appear now to have lived, now to have died. The space is created for a new form of rationality, which would be neither of the other two. But the space is, as it were, blank, not filled in, symbolized but not enunciated in discourse. In short, the dialectic is a negative one, never arriving at a final synthesis, but certainly going beyond its two previous stages.

To Grady, when this Hegelian dialectic plays out at critical junctures in history, tragedy becomes possible. In fifth century Athens, as mythos (stories) gave way to logos (rhetoric), tragedy became possible. In the English Renaissance, as instrumental reason was replacing the Great Chain of Being, tragedy became possible.

Grady’s argument here is of interest, as he arrives at roughly Nietzsche’s position on the birth of tragedy through Hegel, an avenue that Nietzsche would not have taken. It appears in scholarship that you can arrive to the same place by different avenues.

Materialist Thought and Tragedy

For Grady, tragedy arises during a cultural and political changing of the guard. In fifth century Athens, traditional wisdom was giving way to logic and rhetoric. In Renaissance England, feudalism was giving way to modernity. And in our own time, religion is giving way to a post-religious society.

When this cultural sea change occurs, the definition of good and evil is blurred. In a materialist interpretation, tragedy, says Grady, helps us “to assess and understand good and evil in a post-traditional world.” Tragedy, in materialist thought, dramatizes how difficult it is to stand upon the firm ground of good and evil, right and wrong. By problematizing morality, tragedy invites us to ponder how societal changes impact traditional moralities. When we revaluate all values, tragedy is there, dramatizing, in a Hegelian dialectic, the struggle between old and new.

First Question for Bushnell

This Blackwell edition, being a guide for students and available “on the desk of every reference librarian at the college and university level” would surely present a balanced perspective to students? So far, the book chapters have been left leaning. Grady’s article, for example, debunks right wing perspectives. But the attacks are directed to a book over a hundred years old and already falling into discredit by the 1950s. I would be interested in seeing a more balanced perspective, with some contrasting viewpoints of tragedy from the right. My question for Bushnell: why does this companion to tragedy give voice to the left and not the right?

First Question for Grady

Grady shows how materialism offers a superior way of looking at tragedy and debunks conservative points of view. On the materialist side he primarily cites: Michel Foucault (The Order of Things 1966), Raymond Williams (Modern Tragedy 1966), Jonathan Dollimore (Radical Tragedy 1989), and Terry Eagleton (Sweet Violence 2003). On the conservative side, he has A. C. Bradley (Shakespearean Tragedy 1904) and E. M. W. Tillyard (no specific work, but was active in the 1940s and 50s). The conservatives hold that tragic heroes, because human nature is everlasting and unchanging, fall victim, over and over again, to an equally everlasting and unchanging idea of evil. When heroes go to the dark side, they upset the play’s internal moral order.

The materialist view denies all this because, first of all, human behaviour is a product of social structure. Nurture over nature. Because human behaviour is a product of society, evil likewise, far from being fixed, changes over time. What is more, tragedies, argues Grady, dramatize the changing of the guard, insofar as moral orders are concerned. The two great flowerings of tragedy (5th century Athens and Renaissance England) both occur in ages where one moral code was giving way to the next.

My first question for Grady: why not pit Eagleton and the other materialists against more recent conservative adversaries? Grady pits Foucault (1966), Williams (1966), Dollimore (1989), and Eagleton (2003) against E. M. W Tillyard (who, as he admits, does not directly write about tragedy) and A. C. Bradley, a bag of bones who wrote Shakespearean Tragedy in 1904. The tale of the tape shows a heavyweight pitted against a dead guy. I mean, who’s going to win? And, if more recent conservative critics are nowhere to be found, then the question becomes: is the bogeyman of conservative criticism is a straw man?

Second Question for Grady

To Grady, tragedy is about morality. If you’re on the left, tragedy dramatizes the clash between socially constructed moral values (the correct view). If you’re on the right, tragedy dramatizes the clash between everlasting and metaphysical moral values (the incorrect view, as good and evil are transient social constructs). If you don’t believe tragedy is about morality, you don’t get it. Chaucer, for example, writes that tragedy dramatizes “the fickleness of fortune” in the world. Chaucer, according to Grady, doesn’t get tragedy because the medieval world had separated common human experience from the misfortune of the great. I would trust, however, the instincts of Chaucer–a preeminent artist–over the instincts of an academic. Perhaps Chaucer “gets” tragedy and it is the academics who do not “get” it?

My second question for Grady is: what if tragedy is not about morality? What if both the right and the left are mistaken? What if there’s a new paradigm?–instead of morality, risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action in tragedy. This is the point I argue in my 2019 book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected.

In my reading, each dramatic act of tragedy is a gambling act. Tragedy makes risk palpable. By the high stakes action, heroes trigger unexpected outcomes. By dramatizing low-probability, high-consequence outcomes, tragedy is a theatre of risk. This theatre of risk entertains by showcasing the impact of the highly improbable. These risk acts can be good or bad, but the point is not that they are good or evil, but that they are high risk gambles that trigger unexpected outcomes.

Tragedy has long been an intersection point for human intention and chance outcomes. For some reason, scholars have passed this over. When Chaucer and others point to chance, they are pooh-poohed. Let’s see what the tragedies actually say. In the ending to many of Euripides’ plays, Euripides has the chorus tell the audience that the point of tragedy is to dramatize the unexpected. Take the ending of Bacchae:

What heaven sends has many shapes, and many things the gods accomplish against our expectation. What men look for is not brought to pass, but a god finds a way to achieve the unexpected. Such was the outcome of this story.

Then compare this to Chaucer’s understanding of tragedy, taken from the Monk’s tale of the tragedy of Croesus:

Thus hanged at last was Croesus the proud king,

His royal throne to him of no avail.

Tragedy is no other kind of thing,

Nor can lament in singing nor bewail,

Except that Fortune ever will assail

With unexpected stroke the realms that are proud;

For when men trust in her, then will she fail

And cover up her bright face with a cloud.

And then look at the ending of Shakespeare’s Hamlet as Horatio sums up the action:

And let me speak to th’ yet unknowing world

How these things came about. So shall you hear

Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,

Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,

Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause,

And, in this upshot, purposes mistook

Fall’n on th’inventors’ heads. All this can I

Truly deliver.

Professors and philosophers enjoy looking at moral issues. But playwrights are not professors and philosophers. Playwrights, I think, are primarily concerned with writing an exciting play. And risk, rather than morality, is the dramatic fulcrum because risk is inherently dramatic. Risk is inherently dramatic because it triggers the unexpected ending. As we can see from the passages from as varied sources as Euripides, Chaucer, and Shakespeare, risk and the unexpected is a cornerstone of tragic writing.

Are playwrights thinking about risk and exciting plays, or are they thinking about the Hegelian dialectic and how instrumental reason clashes with tradition as they write their plays? Risk theatre, I think, presents a new and welcome apolitical and amoral interpretation of tragedy, and one grounded in the process of playwriting, which, first and foremost, strives to create a captivating play that has the audience on the edge of the seat.

Third Question for Grady (and also Raymond Williams)

Grady writes:

Tragedy is a concept that has been falsely universalized over and over in its long critical history, both in its guise of designating a particular set of perceptions and feelings and in naming a literary genre of differing times and places. Raymond Williams eloquently wrote on this issue, “Tragedy is … not a single and permanent kind of fact, but a series of experiences and conventions and institutions.”

My question for Grady (and Williams), is whether they would say the same thing about comedy, philosophy, and history. Like tragedy, these three other genres also came to us from ancient Greece. Certainly tragedy, comedy, history, and philosophy are products of the time: English Renaissance tragedy is not modern tragedy. But when authors write comedy, philosophy, history, or tragedy, do they not take part in the conversation and tradition of that genre as well? If there is nothing universal about tragedy, how could, say, Anouilh rewrite Oedipus (The Infernal Machine) in the twentieth century? Just as comedy is about laughs and the us/them mentality, philosophy is about categorizing and understanding nature with the categories of the mind, and history is an inquiry into an event, it strikes me that one should be able to look at tragedy from Aeschylus to O’Neill and identify a common denominator because we identify all these works as tragedy.

Grady proposes a solution: “Tragedy, we might say, is universal in its exploration of human suffering.” But, what if, instead, a more primary consideration is that tragedy is universal in its exploration of downside risk? The suffering is secondary, and risk is primary. Most playwrights (unless it is Howard Barker) do not start by saying: “I want to make characters suffer,” but rather “I want to thrill audiences by dramatizing the impact of downside risk, of how, when the hero least expects, Birnam Wood comes to high Dunsinane Hill.” Risk is primary; suffering is secondary.

Fourth Question for Grady

Grady debunks the notion that tragedy presents a moral world order by drawing attention to Nietzsche:

Tragedy reveals the disorder inherent in human nature underneath the ego’s Apollonian appearances. This is particularly true of Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, with its critique of Apollonian rationality and its assertion of the reality of power and desire.

Nietzsche did not give priority to either the order affirming Apollonian or the order denying Dionysian: both are parts of a larger whole. So, I would ask Grady why he gives priority to Nietzsche’s Dionysian over the Apollonian. Both the Apollonian and the Dionysian are world orders, albeit incomplete. It is in their clash that the true nature of reality emerges.

Fifth Question for Grady

Grady see tragedy as the product of colliding and problematic rationalities. When a newfangled instrumental reason collides with traditional reason, tragedy emerges. Grady argues that tragedy was popular in fifth century Athens and Renaissance England because, in both these time periods, a new instrumental reason was displacing the old traditions (in Athens it was the rise of rhetoric and in Renaissance England the possibility of post-religious society).

My question to Grady: if it is true that tragedy arises during a societal changing of the guard, then why, in the 2600 years from the origin of tragedy to today we only have two great flowerings of tragedy? Is Grady’s theory of tragedy statistically robust? Perhaps it is if in the last 2600 years there has only been two major paradigm shifts. That cannot be true by any stretch of the imagination. For Grady’s argument to hold, he would also have to explain why, during other sea changes in society–of which there have been many in the last two millennia–tragedy did not arise.

First Question for Bradley and Tillyard

Grady writes that it was supposed that Shakespeare was a traditionalist since Bradley and Tillyard demonstrated that the malicious characters in Jacobean tragedy practised instrumental reason, the rationality of the voices clamouring for change. My question for Bradley and Tillyard: why is it that we must fight over the classics to own them and control them? This scholarly wrangling reminds of how, back in the old day they used to fight over the bodies of the saints. By possessing such artifacts, the possessors could benefit themselves and hinder enemies. Sophocles’ play Oedipus at Colonus, for example, dramatizes the fight over Oedipus’ corpse.

Scholars fight over the right to claim the classic texts. While most of us no longer fight over saints’ bones and ancient relics, it surprises me, in this so-called enlightened age, how we continue the same sort of behaviour fighting over the classics like they were the bones of old saints. Playwrights, most of the time, are thinking: “How can I create an entertaining play that will thrill all sorts of audiences?” rather than “How can I demonstrate the superiority of traditional or avant-garde rationalities?” Scholars, by ascribing traditionalist or liberal viewpoints to playwrights, turn playwrights into versions of themselves.

A playwright who makes risk the fulcrum of the action is not a priest who makes morality the fulcrum of the action. And a playwright who presents fruitfully ambiguous points of view is not an academic who breaks down these viewpoints into definitive for/against positions (which often coincide with their own views). Playwrights are, first and foremost, entertainers. They are aiming to tell a good story, that is all.

First Question for Raymond Williams

Scholars have questioned why tragedy could not arise in the Middle Ages, but had to wait until the early modern period of Shakespeare’s time. They frequently cite the Monk’s tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to support how people just didn’t get tragedy in the Middle Ages.

In this article, Grady talks about how tragedy critic Williams explains the failure of tragedy to emerge in the Middle Ages and the emergence of tragedy in the early modern period. Grady quotes Williams as saying: “The dissolution of the feudal world allows tragedy to reunite what the medieval era had separated, common human misfortune and the misfortune of the great.”

I just happen to be reading the quintessential work of literature in the Middle Ages: the very same Canterbury Tales by Chaucer. And, as if by some coincidence, the same day I was reading the passage from Williams, I read this passage from the Knight’s tale:

Thus man and woman also, foe and friend,

In either term, in youth or else in age,

Must die, the king as truly as the page;

One in his bed, and one in the deep sea,

One in their open field, their ends agree.

There is no help; we go the common way.

All things must die, it is but truth to say.

It cannot profit any soul alive

Against this everlasting law to strive.

Having read this passage in the Knight’s tale, I would like to ask Williams who his authority is that says in the Middle Ages that common human misfortune is in a different category than the suffering of the masters of the universe.

Author Blurb

Hugh Grady is Professor of English at Arcadia University in Glenside, Pennsylvania. He is author of The Modernist Shakespeare: Critical Texts in a Material World (1991), Shakespeare’s Universal Wolf: Studies in Early Modern Reification (1996), and Shakespeare Machiavelli and Montaigne: Power and Subjectivity from “Richard II” to “Hamlet” (2002). He is editor of Shakespeare and Modernity: From Early Modern to Millennium (2000) and co-editor (with Terence Hawkes) of Presentist Shakespeares (2007). His newest book is Shakespeare and Impure Aesthetics (2009).

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

Review of DEEPWATER HORIZON: A SYSTEMS ANALYSIS OF THE MACONDO DISASTER – Boebert and Blossom

Harvard UP, 2016, 300 pages

Do Not Name Your Well After a Cursed Town Destroyed by Capitalism

When you’re planning to drill 5.5 kilometres down from sea level into the payzone where explosive, scalding gases charged at 14,000 psi are waiting to blow up your rig, you would think you’d name the well something auspicious. You know, something like “Lucky 7.” But no, BP decided to name their well “Macondo.” Macondo is a cursed town which was destroyed by capitalism. With a name like that, you’re just asking to be struck down.

Do Not Celebrate Mission Accomplished Too Soon

On the day of the blowout, BP and Transocean VIPs came aboard the rig to celebrate the Deepwater Horizon’s stellar safety record: zero lost time in seven years. Less than an hour before the blowout, they were finishing up a meeting. The last topic was a question tabled by the BP vice-president: “Why do you think this rig performs as well as it does?”

The scene from Deepwater Horizon’s last day reminds me of the plays the ancient Greek wrote. When Agamemnon, the Greek king comes home after winning the Trojan War, he feels confident enough to tread the purple as he alights from his victorious chariot. This act–not unlike the VP asking: “Why is this rig so great?”–seals Agamemnon’s doom. Have we not learned that we are in the most danger when we are the most confident?

I think we all could benefit from going to the theatre once in awhile. Aeschylus’ Oresteia or Shakespeare’s Macbeth, two plays where the hero is most confident before the fall, are recommended watching for MBA candidates, engineers, and systems analysts. These plays dramatize real-world risks that the equations and formulas don’t tell you: do not celebrate mission accomplished too soon. In fact, even after the mission is accomplished, keep your celebrations lean. Some of the things they don’t teach at business school they teach at a theatre near you.

The Edge

During drilling, a dangerous event known as a “kick” happens when pressurized hydrocarbons enter the well. They shoot up the riser and blowout the rig. To isolate the hydrocarbons from the rig, drillers keep a column of mud between the rig and the hydrocarbons. The weight of the mud in the well, which can vary from 8.5 to 22 pounds per gallon, counteracts the pressurized hydrocarbons at the bottom of the well.

Mud used to be just that: mud. Today mud is a base fluid mixed with a heavy mineral such as barite. Too little mud, and the hydrocarbons can come up the riser. Too much mud, however, results in another dangerous situation called “lost returns.” The diameter of the well varies from three feet at the top down to just less than a foot at the bottom. The sides of the well are fragile. If the weight of the mud is too heavy, it breaks apart the sides of the well, and the mud is irrevocably lost beneath the sea bed. When the mud is lost beneath the sea bed, the hydrocarbons can enter the riser, blowing out the rig.

Boebert and Blossom refer to the art of keeping a well safe as staying on the right side of “the edge.” When a well control situation such as a kick or lost returns happen, the risk of going over the edge rears its ugly head. They quote Hunter S. Thompson on what it means to go over the edge:

Hunter S. Thompson likened the transition of a situation or system into disaster to what can occur when a motorcyclist seeking high-speed thrill rides along a twisting, dangerous highway:

“The Edge … There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.”

Complexity or n(n-1)/2

After a well is drilled, the rig caps the well. At a later date, another specialized rig comes to set up the well for production. To cap a well is a complex procedure with many moving parts. To illustrate how adding tasks to the procedure quickly increases the complexity, Boebert and Blossom site a fascinating formula:

Planning for the abandonment of Macondo was extremely complex. The fundamental source of that complexity was a phenomenon well known to systems engineers: the number of potential pairwise interactions among a set of N elements grows as N times N-1, divided by 2. That means that if there are two elements in the set, there is one potential interaction; if there are five elements, there are ten possible interactions; ten elements, and there are forty-five; and so forth. If the interactions are more complex, such as when more than two things combine, the number is larger. Every potential interaction does not usually become an actual one, but adding elements to a set means that complexity grows much more rapidly than ordinary intuition would expect.

I find complexity fascinating because it leads to “emergent events.” Emergent events, write Boebert and Blossom, arise “from a combination of decisions, actions, and attributes of a system’s components, rather than from a single act.” Emergent events are part of a scholarly mindset which adopts a systems perspective of looking at events. Boebert and Blossom’s book adopts such a model, which is opposed to the judicial model of looking at the Macondo disaster. The judicial approach is favoured when trying to assign blame: the series of events leading to the disaster are likened to a row of dominoes which can be traced back to a blameworthy act.

Unlike Boebert and Blossom, I study literary theory, not engineering. But, like Boebert and Blossom, I find emergent events of the utmost interest. I’ve written a theory of drama called “risk theatre” that makes risk the pivot of the action. In drama, playwrights entertain theatregoers by dramatizing unexpected outcomes or unintended consequences. These unexpected outcomes can be the product of fate, the gods, or miscalculations on the part of the characters. But another way to draw out unexpectation from the story is to add complexity. That is to say, if there are two events in the play, there is one potential interaction; if there are five events, there are ten possible interactions; ten events, and there are forty-five. The trick for playwrights is this: how many events can you juggle and keep the narrative intact?

Luxuriant Retrospective Position

“Luxuriant retrospective position” is Boebert and Blossom’s term for “armchair quarterback.” They acknowledge that the project managers, drillers, and engineers were not operating from a luxuriant retrospective position. Many of them were doing the best that they could with an incomplete understanding. Often, when I read books breaking down disasters, the writers point fingers from their armchair perspective. This, to me, smacks of the same hubris they assign to their targets. It is like saying you would have a military historian rather than Napoleon fighting all your battles because the military historian can see things that Napoleon could not. It is quite decent of Boebert and Blossom to acknowledge how they are looking at things from hindsight.

I’m writing this in the midst of this coronavirus pandemic. In a year down the road, the books will start hitting the shelves telling us what we did wrong, telling us how we could have saved lives, and telling us how, if we had looked at things rationally, we could have done so easily. Many people will read these books, and parrot them. Will you be one of these people? Who would you rather fight your wars, the general Napoleon, or the historian Edward Gibbon? Who would you rather manage your money, John Meriwether (architect of a doomed hedge fund) or journalist Roger Lowenstein (who wrote a book exposing the errors of the doomed hedge fund)? Would you rather have BP’s team run the oil rig, or Boebert and Blossom? If you had said Gibbon, Lowenstein, and Boebert and Blossom, think again. Can those who understand backwards also act forwards? There is actually a story, a true story of how Napoleon appointed the mathematician Laplace to be the minister of the interior. Laplace, like Gibbon, Lowenstein, and Boebert and Blossom, would have taken a scientific approach to administration. Good, you say? No. Napoleon fired him for “carrying the spirit of infinitesimal into administration.” There is a tragedy in how those who understand backwards cannot act forwards.

Book Blurb

On April 20, 2010, the crew of the floating drill rig Deepwater Horizon lost control of the Macondo oil well forty miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. Escaping gas and oil ignited, destroying the rig, killing eleven crew members, and injuring dozens more. The emergency spiraled into the worst human-made economic and ecological disaster in Gulf Coast history.

Senior systems engineers Earl Boebert and James Blossom offer the most comprehensive account to date of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Sifting through a mountain of evidence generated by the largest civil trial in U.S. history, the authors challenge the commonly accepted explanation that the crew, operating under pressure to cut costs, made mistakes that were compounded by the failure of a key safety device. This explanation arose from legal, political, and public relations maneuvering over the billions of dollars in damages that were ultimately paid to compensate individuals and local businesses and repair the environment. But as this book makes clear, the blowout emerged from corporate and engineering decisions which, while individually innocuous, combined to create the disaster.

Rather than focusing on blame, Boebert and Blossom use the complex interactions of technology, people, and procedures involved in the high-consequence enterprise of offshore drilling to illustrate a systems approach which contributes to a better understanding of how similar disaster emerge and how they can be prevented.

Author(s) Blurb

Earl Boebert is a retired Senior Scientist at the Sandia National Laboratories.

James M. Blossom gained his engineering experience at Los Alamos National Laboratory and the General Electric Corporation.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.