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Author: Svetlana Yefimenko

Dialogue with a Dead Poet: An Experiment

Dialogue with a Dead Poet: An Experiment

That Tolstoy’s writing is influenced by Homeric epic has been remarked again and again, perhaps most famously by George Steiner and Harold Bloom. Tolstoy, the critical consensus declares, is Homeric.

For me, however, this wasn’t quite the case.

I read War and Peace when I was twenty-one, returning to it for both pleasure and wisdom again and again. Eventually, someone beautiful loaned me his battered, marked-up copy of Homer’s Iliad.

While reading it, I was struck over and over by how much Homer sounds like Tolstoy.

Because I read backwards, Tolstoy was not Homeric for me, but rather I experienced Homer as Tolstoyan.  Of course, the reality is that all of us are backwards readers. Nobody begins their literary education with the Epic of Gilgamesh and then reads chronologically through the ages.  For many, Homeric epic may very well be experienced as Tolstoyan, Joycean, or maybe even Jamesean. This is a phenomenological observation, and I’d like to use it to embark upon a brief thought experiment.

Before we do that, however, I’ll lay the groundwork by referencing two approaches to reading.

First. To escape the limitation of author’s biographies and ideologies, but at the same time avoid the other extreme of completely decontextualizing a text, let us consider a half-ironic technique Pierre Bayard terms mobile attribution wherein a work is attributed to an author who is not the one who wrote it – it’s a way of thinking that frees readers from the authority of a particular author or historical context.

If the Iliad, for example, were read as something composed by an Anatolian woman, our reading would be dramatically foregrounded by the text’s descriptions of femininity or its evocation of the non-Greek, eastern Trojans who have come to be associated with a Bronze Age Anatolian kingdom.

In other words, mobile attribution can bring a text’s themes and values out of the shadows, or displace prominent, canonical interpretations.

Second. Let’s consider Kuisma Korhonen’s concept of textual friendship. By looking at essays by Montaigne and Plutarch, Korhonen describes how the essay creates a relationship we can designate as friendship not between the writer and the reader, but between the reader and the text due to the assumed privacy of the essay form. This intimacy between the reader and a voice which might be the author’s, the narrator’s, or the writer’s creates a hermeneutical circle that links writers and readers across time and space. But this linkage is neither obvious nor comfortable, based not on proximity but on indecidability. Korhonen writes, “What is at stake in textual friendship is less a reunion of old mates than a step… into the uncertain, the unfamiliar, the unknown, toward the Other in its irreducible otherness… to strange landscapes where friends look less and less like friends, or even, for that matter, human beings.”

So, our two concepts are mobile attribution which allows us to edit and remix authors, and we have textual friendship, which links readers and texts on a path toward defamiliarization.

All set?  Let’s go.

In 1857, a 29-year-old Tolstoy read the Iliad, and this reading inspired him to rethink and rewrite the entirety of The Cossacks, his first novel. After completing the epic, Tolstoy writes in his journal: Читал Евантелие, чего давно не делал. После «Илиады». Как мог Гомер не знать, что добро – любовь! [I read the Gospels, which I haven’t done in a long time. After the Iliad. How could Homer not know that goodness is love!]

Critics like Donna Orwin and Robert Jackson don’t doubt that in this passage, Tolstoy is lamenting the absence of true spiritual faith in Homer.  Jackson goes so far as to say about Tolstoy, “after reading the gospel, he is deeply pained like a man who has learned a very disagreeable fact about a friend.”

On this reading, Tolstoy has developed a friendship with Homer, a literary friendship, not a textual one, and we, as readers of Tolstoy’s allegedly private messages to himself, are drawn into a relationship with this journal which addresses itself to us and to our religious sense, if we have any, by exclaiming about Homer’s.

I read this passage of Tolstoy’s in conjunction with his other comments on Homeric virtue and his association of Homer with love, nobility, and the Bible, all of which are scattered throughout his short stories and nonfiction, and I come to the conclusion that как мог Гомер не знать, что добро – любовь actually means, how could anyone possibly think that Homer was ignorant of this moral truth? Как мог Гомер не знать? Конечно он знал. I would like to suggest that, for Tolstoy, Homer did know that goodness is love, and we have all been misreading the Iliad.  The hermeneutical circle which includes Homer, Tolstoy’s journal, and me is an instance of friendship, of intimacy, which is not an argument, but an experience.

You’ll notice that in having this experience, I’m doing exactly what Pierre Bayard has advised us not to do: I’m picking through Tolstoy’s biography, relying on the authority of his other writing, and generally invoking Tolstoy’s authorial presence to legitimize my reading or, if you like, my misreading. However, if authorial authority is a too-limiting ground for my textual friendship with Tolstoy’s journal, then perhaps I can try mobile attribution. If we move chronologically, first Homer speaks in the Iliad, then Tolstoy responds not only privately in his journal but publicly in War and Peace and his other fiction which appropriates Homeric epic, and finally, with Donna Orwin’s reading, or my misreading, the hermeneutical circle is complete and the discourse of friendship is exhausted.

If only it didn’t end there. If only we could have Homer’s response.

Well, perhaps we do. Enter Petrarch.

Petrarch collected and edited hundreds of his own letters, some of which are addressed to ancient writers like Cicero, Livy, and Seneca. The epistles addressed to Latin authors end with some variation on the following lines: “from the land of the living, in the capital of the world, Rome, your fatherland, which has become mine, on 1 November of the year 1350 from the birth of Him whom I wish you had known” or “…from the birth of Him whom you might have seen or heard, had you lived a little longer.”

Petrarch wishes that Livy and Seneca had known the Christian faith, and obviously doesn’t doubt that if they had known of it, they would have been believers. With this backwards lament, Petrarch’s letters, supposedly private communication, come to stand in my hermeneutical circle beside Tolstoy’s journals.

Things get really interesting when we consider that Petrarch received a letter from Homer. We don’t know who sent it. Petrarch claimed not to know who sent it. Whether it was an anonymous correspondent, Petrarch himself, or, who knows, maybe even Homer – we don’t have the letter.

But!  We have Petrarch’s response. Remarkably, the manuscript of this response was folded in three, as he folded his letters to be sent, and an address written: Homero Meonio poete inaccessibili.  The folding, layout, and script is exactly like that of Petrarch’s authentic letters – it seems Petrarch anticipated and plagiarized Bayard’s dismissal of literary chronology, and fiction and reality became one.

So what did Homer say?  Well, he complained about the challenges of classical reception, criticizing his inheritors for attempting to imitate his epic style. Petrarch’s response is instructive: “As for imitators, what shall I say? … you should have foreseen that imitators would never be lacking …” After all, Petrarch tells Homer, to steal the staff from Hercules is a sign of great power.

If we widen the hermeneutical circle to include Petrarch’s letter to Homer, adding Tolstoy to the list of Homer’s undesirable imitators and attributing Petrarch’s response to Tolstoy, we have mobile attribution which results in a diological textual friendship.  Homer speaks in the Iliad, initiating literary friendship with Tolstoy, who crafts his own epic, and responds privately, in his journals, initiating a textual friendship with us.  Homer responds through a private letter: how dare you imitate and try to improve upon me?  Let’s attribute Petrarch’s response to Tolstoy: because I’m good enough to do so.

Homer’s and Petrarch’s letters become part of the text with which we engage in friendship, many voices coalescing into one by the process of our reading. If we put together mobile attribution and textual friendship, we get a hermeneutical circle which includes multiple texts and which the reader organizes into one voice, one friend who is a unique amalgamation of the reader’s backwards reading. This friendship becomes a platform from which to glimpse how Homer’s inadequate knowledge of spiritual faith, or his inability to convey it clearly, achieves mature expression in the spiritual dimension of Tolstoy’s epic.

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was Kooler Than Us

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was Kooler Than Us

In twelve words: Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters rock America with drugs and madness.

This counter-cultural, irreverent weirdness, brimming with neon hippies adventuring across the astonished United States armed with LSD and exuberance, turned fifty years old recently. As something that only 1960s America could have produced, it is nevertheless not mired in its very peculiar sociohistorical moment, reaching its bright green tentacles right into the twenty-first century, poking and rearranging and pointing out.

Essentially, this book is a trip, literally and figuratively, and the trip is Ken Kesey’s. While One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is undeniably a (minor) triumph, Kesey is no visionary. He has no solutions, no explanations, no strategies, no great plan for a juster and more beautiful world. He just wants to, like, hang out.

Oh, but that’s the point, a bedraggled hipster would insist indignantly, with a righteous and sensitive mouth.

Yes yes yes, of course, but the point as pointlessness, this eternal tautology, is neither mysterious nor profound.

It is, however, an opportunity.

We clamber aboard the spray-painted bus with the rollicking, singing, perpetually high Merry Pranksters to criss-cross the deep South and mock the stars and the stripes and the cities and the ordinary people in traffic who just can’t jive to this great refusal of ours.

We drink orange juice laced with acid and perform experimental music with the just-formed Grateful Dead at Acid Tests, which are psychedelic parties replete with LSD, black lights, and projections of spinning melting colors. This exhilaration, flung wide open to new experience, burns at the enviable outside of commercialization.

The Merry Pranksters were doing something new.

Not innovative <— this word, so frequently invoked in tech articles to laud the launch of some mobile app or other, is really an unconscious euphemism for the entrepreneurial spirit which seeks not revolution but a quicker, more efficient, more streamlined way to reproduce the status quo in a way that makes more people more money more quickly.

Kesey and his farcical followers may not have exploded the status quo, but they certainly learned how to thrive on its margins.

Now, when we stand around enormous music venues, gazing up at the blinking Coca-Cola sign, and mosh pits are shoved up against gruff men with flashlights who are paid to ensure nobody has too much irresponsible or unsupervised fun, and marijuana edibles are arranged along glass cases rising impressively in air-conditioned, state-tax-paying dispensaries, and fifty-dollar, handwashed, organic T-Shirts proclaim Rule-Breaker and Che and Rebel, and we can order our own Banksy prints from Amazon for just $7.99, and micro-dosing is an Instagrammable method of getting more work done – when, in short, our dissent has been thoroughly co-opted and commodified and counter-culture is something to consume – the colorful bus called Furthur (sic) careening across a great vastness begins to look a lot like freedom.

Do You Even History?

Do You Even History?

Among its many other virtues, history unifies.  A shared, agreed-upon past reassures us that we are exactly where we should be, indeed, where we must inevitably be, because things couldn’t have and ought not have happened any other way. 

Sargon of Akkad, who unified Mesopotamia by creating the very first empire in the 23rd century BC, became a beloved legend, celebrated as the greatest man who had ever lived.  Just as he unified, the historical vision of his achievements was unifying.

But if you read enough Foucault, you’ll see that this historical approach, too, has a history.  This method achieves historical continuity by means of recollection which proceeds by conscious forgetting, a way of speaking which insists on silence, a list characterized by what’s unlisted.

But what if the wild, wandering, tribal Amorites, whom Sargon subjugated, or the Elamite dynasty, whose land he conquered, had left us their memories of the Akkadian empire’s earliest days?  Would we hear lament, stories of violent resistance, political denunciation?  Would it change our reception of Sargon of Akkad?  Significantly, what would happen to the narrative continuity of the first empire’s development?  Counter-history, it seems, functions as memory which disrupts shared memory.

This is because every conqueror presupposes a conquered, every victory a defeat, and every acquired territory a lost homeland.  What’s forgotten is not only an object of knowledge, but a source of knowledge.  These knowledges themselves can smear on war paint to do battle with sovereign history, and with the rise of modernity in the seventeenth century, they do just that. It is not entirely clear if counter-history has always existed in silent, shadowy forms as the illegitimate progeny of sovereign right and only struggled into the light in the seventeenth century, or if it came into existence at that later date. In speaking at all, however, counter-history commits an act of aggression.

However, if history proper has traditionally been a legitimizer and intensifier of power, it seems reasonable to suppose that history improper has always seethed and simmered beneath the cool façade of sovereign right. In other words, this must mean that as long as history has existed, it has dutifully concealed subjugated knowledges of the oppressed and conquered. Furthermore, this act of continuous, permanent concealment and subjection implies history’s self-awareness of itself as unjustifiable on its own terms.

History, then, has existed as a question which it dared not ask.

Let’s consider Gore Vidal’s comment about Alexander the Great:

“Today when a revulsion against war is normal, the usual commercialite would be inclined to depict Alexander as a Fag Villain Killer, but… it needs to be borne in mind today that not till more than a century later did a handful of philosophers even start to question the morality of war.”

Aside from the complacency of ethnocentrism which Vidal aptly points out, it’s jarring to even consider that the great justificatory battle which sovereign history deploys against subjugated knowledges may, for the likes of Alexander, not have existed at all. The conqueror was not the guardian or recipient of any conqueror’s right because there was simply no such question. Alexander, who doubtless regarded himself just as modern and forward-thinking as we do ourselves, was doing what any man in his position would have done. If we could ask how he justifies his slaughters, it is likely that he would raise bewildered eyes and ask us what we mean.

Much later, with military tacticians such as Caesar and eventually Napoleon, history’s self-awareness as the defender of sovereign privilege and the right of conquest becomes more clear. Napoleon was extraordinarily conscious of his unique, singular position as brilliant strategist and conqueror, and certainly did not think that what he did was what anyone else in his position would have done. Only he, only a Napoleon or a Caesar, has such valor and ability and therefore is privy to the right and privilege which are for Napoleons and Caesars to enjoy.

I’m suggesting, rather less tentatively than perhaps I should be, that perhaps not only was the violence of conquest once a democratic, egalitarian phenomenon, natural and inevitable for anyone, but that it did not take the form of struggle between sovereign and subjugated truth. For example, Plato argues in the Republic that a victory of some over others, even in the name of peace, dissolves society, which must be founded on cooperation of one thriving social organism, utterly rejecting the Hobbesian notion of subjects voluntarily submitting to rulers, and explicitly denying the validity of conquest.  So, before counter-history challenged sovereign right in 1630 in the name of a more just past achievable through revolution, the status quo of ancient Greece rejected it outright.

When Sarpedon tells Glaucus that in battle they either win glory for themselves or yield it to other men, it’s not just a reiteration of the heroic code, but also a historical description: the ancients either conquered or were conquered.  It’s a cool, unsentimental truth, as implacable as a law of nature: today it’s us, tomorrow it’s them.  The vanquished, in another year or mood, may well become the conquerors, and this insight is precisely why Sparta maintained such rigorous control over the helots.  Anyone’s city might be sacked and burned, the doomed men killed, the wretched women and children enslaved — this roulette had nothing to do with “natural right,” skin color, or ethnicity.  If you had this opportunity for conquest and violence, you seized it.  If you didn’t seize it, it just meant you weren’t powerful enough.  It was a time of conquerors and possibilities of conquerors, nothing more.

History’s self-reflexive self-idenitification as ruse, as illusion, as a struggle with counter-history, is itself a historical phenomenon the origins of which are perhaps traceable to a time when violent conquest first began to grope about for a mask.

A Short Note on Identity, Shakespeare, and Foucault (again)

A Short Note on Identity, Shakespeare, and Foucault (again)

Perhaps the broadest nature of Foucault’s project can be summarized as an attempt to make us aware of the contingent nature of familiar and seemingly universal concepts.  The entire body of human sciences has historical antecedents which revolve rather predictably upon a very distinctive concept of the human subject.  Just as Foucault urges us to ask by what processes and under what conditions statements are made and taken to be meaningful, we can probe the processes and conditions by which subjects are made and taken to be selves.  Foucault writes: “The establishment of a complete oeuvre presupposes a number of choices that are difficult to justify or even to formulate.”

Strangely, so is the establishment of the self.

Just as the separation between a published work and a grocery list is precarious and vague, so is the separation between public and private selves.  There are intended, or official, statements, and unintended, or unofficial statements.

A scribbled confession, someone’s name on a napkin, the sketch of a profile – these are the unintended, unofficial statements of self which are excluded from the oeuvre of the self as unjustifiable and illegitimate, like bastard children.  The unity of an oeuvre, Foucault explains, is not given.  It is “the result of an operation.” Well, of course.  When the indomitable Thomas Cromwell arrives at the court of Henry VIII, he arranges his face.  He is suppliant, amenable, and this is not hypocrisy.  The face that he has arranged “can be regarded neither as an immediate unity, nor as a certain unity, nor as a homogenous unity.”  It is, perhaps, a strategic unity.

Whether deliberate or otherwise, the unity resulting from an operation delimits the edges of the oeuvre of the self.  Oeuvres are not stable objects but are situated in networks, and the meaning of an oeuvre is not found in its implicit and secret nature, but develops as a consequence of its location within a network.  The categories for such networks are continually shifting – upon what basis do such categories emerge?  If something is said at all and is constituted as meaningful, it is only because it emerges on a field in terms of which it makes sense – perhaps it is these very terms which constitute discursive formations.

Shakespeare famously declared that “All the world’s a stage,/ And all the men and women merely players;/ They have their exits and their entrances,/ And one man in his time plays many parts.”  In other words, we are ourselves only inasmuch as there is a stage for us to be on.  Indeed, our very status as players, as individuals, as subjects, is discursively conferred upon us.  We are not individuals a priori and continuously, but a posteriori and discontinuously.  Our being is not composed of unities, but by systems of dispersion – our exits and our entrances, our many parts.  As objects of discourse, roles are defined by exterior relations, not interior properties.

Shakespeare’s characters are not to be sought in the biographies of actors, but in the relations among costumes, props, scenery, exits stage right, and the anonymity which allows replacement by an understudy.  In an unexpected way, this analysis is nearly Kantian: we encounter an object as the object that it is only inasmuch as we have categories in which to experience it as such.  This ought to imply that anything which is within the bounds of such categories is a possibility of experience.  Yet this is not so.

Tantalizingly, Foucault introduces the mystery that there are many statements which are grammatically and logically acceptable but which are never, ever uttered.  There are many roles which are not acted, realized, or even scripted.  Obviously, there are rules besides logic and grammar – epistemic rules, perhaps – which delimit the possibility of what can be said, acted, or even thought.

Socrates, the Educator of Tyrants

Socrates, the Educator of Tyrants

When we think of Socrates, we usually imagine a sandaled martyr of democracy, a radical thinker sacrificed to the caprice of the uncomprehending mob. Admired by dissidents like Gandhi and Tolstoy, Socrates was the inspired enfant terrible of the polis, a poster child of free speech who dared to ask the difficult questions, troubling the status quo and undermining authority. This, at all events, is the popular vision of him, expressed very beautifully by Joyce’s paraphrasing of Maeterlinck, who contrasts the benevolent Socrates with a legendary traitor: “If Socrates leaves his house today he will find the sage seated on his doorstep. If Judas goes forth tonight it is to Judas his steps will tend.”

But is this version completely balanced? We’ll get to that.

First, some background.

After the conclusion of the Peloponnesian War, a 30+ year conflict waged between Athens and Sparta from which Sparta emerged victorious and cocky, a 30-man squad of oligarchs took over Athens. Imposed by Sparta, these guys were complete jerks.

Brutal and repressive, they slashed democratic laws, murdered around 1,500 Athenians (which was about 10% of the population), stole everyone’s property, and sent into exile thousands of others who opposed them. Lots of people fled. Needless to say, the Thirty Tyrants’ savage reign dissolved in just a few months the hard-won and precious Athenian democracy.

Here’s the thing: two of the Thirty Tyrants just happened to be Socrates’ former students, Critias and Charmides, and Critias was one of the government’s most ruthless leaders. This didn’t exactly make Socratic teachings look good. More damning, however, was that not only did Socrates not leave Athens with everyone else who opposed the reign of terror, but he wasn’t exiled with the other democrats, either. The Thirty’s harsh laws didn’t touch him or his property.

One day, the oligarchs decided to execute Leon of Salamis and take all his stuff. They turned to Socrates for help, asking him to bring the luckless Leon in. Socrates refused, something he proudly brought up during his trial, saying “That government, as powerful as it was, did not frighten me into any wrongdoing. When we left the Hall, the other four went to Salamis and brought in Leon, but I went home.”

Well, ring-a-ding-ding, Socrates, your fearlessness just blew our minds.

What can we say? He didn’t help arrest the guy, sure, but he also didn’t exactly go to the mattresses to oppose the bloodthirsty dictatorship. He didn’t even protest the order. He could’ve at least warned poor Leon. What’s weird is: why did the Thirty ask Socrates to carry out the cruel mission in the first place? Did they expect him to cooperate? None of the ancient sources tell us that the sharp rhetorical rapier Socrates so famously deployed against power was ever wielded against the Spartan dictatorship, in word or in deed.

Anyway, after the Thirty were finally overthrown and Athens was left reeling from the wave of assassinations and abuse, it’s pretty logical that anyone who’d been tight with the despots was looked upon with suspicion. This alone might have been enough for Athenians to mistrust and persecute Socrates.

The perception of Socrates as an educator of tyrants reached its apotheosis fifty years after Socrates’ execution, when the orator Aeschines reminded the Athenians that they “killed Socrates the Sophist because he appeared to have taught Critias, one of the Thirty who put down democracy.” Put that together with his totally inegalitarian politics, and what you get looks a lot like unequivocal support for the unchecked power of wealthy aristocrats. So much for the revolutionary spirit of a political dissident.

On the Earliest Poetry and Being Less Boring

On the Earliest Poetry and Being Less Boring

In twelve words: goddess loves her, goddess loves her not, goddess loves her, goddess loves… 

Are you surprised that the first known author in human history was a woman?

 Daughter of the legendary rockstar conqueror and dynastic founder Sargon of Akkad, Enheduanna served as high priestess of the moon god’s cult in Ur, a super important religious center in Sumer.

Religion and government were essentially the same thing in those days, and as high priestess, Enheduanna would’ve called the shots in Ur’s temple complex. This was somewhere around 2300 BCE. 

Just think: this princess, priestess, and poet was writing two thousand years before the Greek classical period.  Her poetry influenced centuries of petitionary writing, from Homeric hymns to Biblical psalms.  Looming imperiously at the very beginning of human literacy, Enheduanna’s most astonishing work is The Exaltation of Inanna, an autobiographical hymn to the Mesopotamian goddess of battle. 

It describes how some jerk named Lugal-Ane staged a coup and exiled Enheduanna; after the furious goddess intervened on her behalf, Enheduanna was restored to her authoritative position. 


She also wrote about religion, war, and perhaps most tantalizingly, about herself.  Her poems are intimate, personal, and straightforward in their evocation of inner experience. 

We’re totally used to hearing modern poets complain about their lives, but more than 4,000 years separate us from Enheduanna. 

I’ve encountered a few different translations of her writing – there aren’t many – and it’s always tempting to read her poems and say, “Oh my god, she’s just like me!” But she’s not.  We don’t know her real name.  We don’t even know the origin of the language she spoke and wrote.  Moreover, we don’t know where the Sumerians themselves came from, what they looked like, or who their descendants are.  Ancient Sumer is, in a profound sense, a lost world.  We guess and infer, but the world’s first civilization is mostly an enigmatic, well-guarded secret.

For me, Enheduanna is associated with Nietzsche’s provocative question:

“Supposing that Truth is a woman – what then?” 

Nietzsche thinks we’ve been approaching truth all wrong.  Instead of doggedly pursuing her, philosophers should be charming and wooing her.  Academic articles invariably begin with “This study aims to establish X, Y, and Z.”  Timid, conscientious creatures, scholars are forever “aiming” to “establish” or “prove.” But maybe truth isn’t something to be established, discovered, or proven.  Maybe truth is something to be seduced.  Nothing destroys romance like the methodical argument, and no woman was ever driven mad with desire by a carefully drawn academic conclusion.  Maybe we should swap our syllogisms and deductions for masks, perfumes, poems

It’s not a coincidence that Enheduanna didn’t display her vast theological knowledge in tracts, lists, and summaries, like her contemporaries.  She communicated with poetry.  

Poets are always, always illusionists.  Enheduanna was the very first, uniting the political and the religious, the sacred and the worldly, in art.

Ultimately, our image of Enheduanna and her lost kingdom is not only a matter of history, but also of aesthetics – we create the past just as much as we recover it.  So let’s take our responsibility as artists more seriously by approaching scholarship more playfully.  I’m convinced that Keats couldn’t have meant anything else when he wrote that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” 

Is “50 Shades of Grey” Immoral? Does it Matter?

Is “50 Shades of Grey” Immoral? Does it Matter?


Have you ever heard someone say that Twilight is a terrible movie because it presents stalking and emotional co-dependency as desirable? Or that 50 Shades of Grey is an awful book because it eroticizes abuse? I have. Every time someone criticizes such pop culture phenomena on ethical grounds, they’re making the assumption that good art has to be good for something — in most cases, that something is morality.  But what’s this assumption grounded on?

Let’s talk about Noel Carroll, a philosopher of art, and the 20-year-old dispute he started.

The debate, politely confined to academic journals, was initiated by Carroll’s explication of his position as a moderate moralist. Here’s what this means: Carroll begins with the observation that many artworks inspire moral responses in their audience, thereby encouraging interpretation and evaluation of themselves in moral terms. For Carroll, such responses are often not prescribed by the work, but already present in the minds of audiences. Numerous presuppositions are required of spectators and readers, who arrive with assumptions and then utilize them to complete narrative gaps. For example, Shakespeare needn’t explain why Hamlet is outraged at his father’s murder. King Lear’s disappointment in Regan’s ingratitude is taken as a matter of course, since ungrateful children are tacitly understood to be disappointing. In fact, narratives are often unintelligible without the audience’s preconceptions: unless one finds the social ostracism of Anna Karenina both inevitable and distressing, Anna’s suicide becomes incomprehensible. Thus, Carroll explains, it is a typical element of artworks to “activate” existing moral emotions, without which the work will be inaccessible to the viewer (whether some works deliberately strive for inaccessibility is a related, but separate, notion). Given sufficient moral flaws, Carroll posits, the activation does not take place, and the work remains beyond intelligibility. Since an antecedent moral understanding is a prerequisite of art’s audience, Carroll concludes that moral evaluation is implicit in aesthetic engagement.

Carroll’s second bulwark for moderate moralism relies upon an Aristotelian conception of proper tragic character. In his Poetics, Aristotle proposes that the plot tragedy offers “must not be the spectacle of a … bad man passing from adversity to prosperity … it neither satisfies the moral sense, nor calls forth pity or fear.” Moral defectiveness, in other words, must not be presented without its just punishment, or, what amounts to the same thing, without a moralizing message. Without it, the audience cannot sympathize with the artwork. If a work strives to arouse pity and fear, as proper tragedy should, the substance of the work must be morally sympathetic.

Venturing where Aristotle points, Carroll introduces the uncontroversial thesis that achieving the desired audience response is an integral feature of successful artworks. However, if a work which aims at the audience’s pity is so ethically inappropriate that it prevents emotional “uptake,” it cannot achieve the desired pitying response because it has “invited the audience to share a defective moral perspective.” Thus, the portrayal of certain unethical attitudes, since it precludes the hoped for aesthetic response, forces the artwork to fail qua art. Invoking the incorrect “bad man passing from adversity to prosperity” formula, Carroll imagines a dramatic representation of Hitler as a sympathetic character. Such a representation must founder in its own emotional inaccessibility, Carroll argues, because the audience cannot summon the necessary sympathy for such a morally objectionable figure. In the simplest terms, the artwork remains beyond sympathy because the audience “doesn’t get it.” For Carroll, emotional remoteness occasioned by the “failure to achieve uptake” is an aesthetic failure precisely because it is a moral failure. Linking the capacity to achieve uptake with his assertion that audiences complete works by contributing an implicit ethical understanding, Carroll concludes: “Securing the right moral response of the audience is as much a part of the design of a narrative artwork as structural components like plot complications. Failure to elicit the right moral response, then, is a failure in the design of the work, and, therefore, is an aesthetic failure.” With this elegant formulation, Carroll defends a moderate moralism which guards the inextricability of ethical from aesthetic value.  In other words, if we think that stalking or sexual domination are unethical, then Twilight and 50 Shades fail aesthetically by failing ethically.

But is it convincing?

Let’s begin by examining Carroll’s first supposition: artworks “activate” existing moral emotions, and if the activation doesn’t take place, the work remains inaccessible. One must understand Hamlet’s outrage at his father’s murder, for example, in order to understand the play. If one believed that murdering fathers was a common or even a cheerfully encouraged practice, Hamlet’s plot would become nonsensical.  Thus, Shakespeare activates our ethical sense by summoning the common knowledge that murder, particularly when applied to family members, is wrong. Very well. But doesn’t Hamlet also activate our biological sense by relying upon our common knowledge that humans are mortal? Is not this sense further activated by Shakespeare neglecting to mention that his characters drink water and use the restroom? The audience is not surprised when Hamlet does not sit down to a single square meal for the long months of the play’s action because the fact that he must be eating is implicitly understood. In fact, there is a myriad of implicit understandings with which an audience arrives at an artwork – biological, historical, cultural, psychological, and even scientific. If the activation of ethical norms is a standard feature of artworks, then so is the activation of biological and historical norms, without which the work may be incomprehensible. This is true, but trivially so. Unless, along with ethics, we are prepared to admit biology, history, and science into the summary of aesthetic value, such implicit understandings, while necessary, are nevertheless not aesthetic features. But wait, an attentive objector might cry, Carroll’s formula regards ethical norms as aesthetic features only if eliciting such norms is part of the design of the work. Again, this is only trivially true. If it’s essential to the design of Hamlet that we reject murder, it’s equally essential that we accept mortality or the undesirability of death because, without them, the plot’s design is not possible. Surely, we are not prepared to admit “moderate biologism” or “moderate psychologism” along with Carroll’s moderate moralism into the scope of art critical standards.

Now let’s consider Carroll’s second supposition: achieving the desired audience response is a standard feature of successful artworks. While this seems self-evident, it does not follow that if the desired response is an ethical one, the artwork’s failure to achieve it is also ethical. Invoking Brett Easton Ellis’ novel American Psycho, Carroll recounts that it was intended as a satire, but the coldly disturbing descriptions of murders were regarded as so morally offensive, that audiences were unable to see the novel’s ironic elements: “American Psycho’s failure to achieve uptake as satire is attributable to Ellis’ failure to grasp the moral inappropriateness of regarding his serial killer as comic.” Carroll argues that such works fail because they ask the audience to “share a defective moral perspective” where the nature of the work itself calls for a proper moral perspective. However, this contradiction lies not in ethics, but in aesthetics. When Hamlet’s dead father appears in contemporary productions of the play as a transparent phantom, the audience is asked to entertain an unscientific point of view. Ghosts, common knowledge tells us, do not exist. The play asks us to temporarily believe, for its sake, that they do. Despite common knowledge, the audience plays along.  If the scene’s special effects become excessive, with, say, transparent sheets flying to and fro, the childish absurdity of believing in ghosts might overcome the power of the play to move us. In such a case, it would not be the unscientific nature of ghosts, but the way ghosts are presented, that prevents tragic uptake. It would not be the content, but the form, of the work that would become objectionable. These would not be scientific defects, but aesthetic ones. Similarly, if the audience does not play along with American Psycho’s killer, it is not a moral failing, but an aesthetic one. It isn’t that the novel portrays a killer, but rather that it does so badly. Killers need not be justly punished for a novel to “work” at securing uptake, but they must be presented in ways which accord with aesthetic sensibilities. Had Ellis been a stronger artist, the immoral content of his novel may have been transcended by its aesthetic form. Shallower works sometimes founder in the gap between form and content which powerful works are capable of reconciling.  After all, great works ask audiences to identify with rascals and villains very frequently. Let us consider the icy cruelty of Iago, whose soliloquy nevertheless manages to elicit empathy, or the pickpocketing Artful Dodger, whose criminality seems comical. Since Iago is one of the coldest villains in literature, it’s certainly not his congruence with ethical understanding which encourages “uptake” of Othello, but rather Shakespeare’s aesthetic choices which move us despite, or perhaps because of, their disturbance of implicit moral knowledge.

To illustrate this further, let’s imagine the feminist philosopher Marcia Muelder Eaton lingering near a lake in Minneapolis. Beside the water, the loose strife flower blooms. Frothy purple blossoms cling to slender stems. The flower, Ms. Eaton thinks, is beautiful. Then, she recalls that the exotic plant invades wherever it takes root, swiftly ruining water purification processes for other plants and animals and destroying the delicate ecosystem. She writes, “I know that it is a dangerous, even evil, plant … But I cannot prevent myself from finding the plant quite beautiful.”  Despite its ruthlessness, the flower is beautiful, and its destructiveness perhaps only makes this conflict more pronounced and therefore more aesthetically forceful. In Carroll’s parlance, the purple flower contradicts implicit moral knowledge. Nevertheless, it achieves uptake in Ms. Eaton’s mind. This ethical dilemma of beauty in evil is at the very heart of Carroll’s critique. It is, however, an ethical dilemma. American Psycho is unlike the loose strife flower because it lacks aesthetic, not moral, goodness.

Perhaps the most notorious example of an “evil” artwork is Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, a glorification of Nazi Germany which enjoyed an overwhelmingly positive reception, though certainly not because it was more moral than American Psycho. The film, made at Hitler’s request, focuses upon the 1934 Nuremberg party rally sponsored by the Nazi Party. Brilliantly orchestrated montages of thousands of troops, marching bands, parades, and speeches flowing to the cadence of Wagnerian music create a stunning spectacle.

The film was successful not only in Germany, but won the Gold Medal at the Venice Film Festival and the Grand Prix at the Paris Film Festival, and is still regarded as a supreme cinematic achievement. The controversy, of course, is explicit. The representation of ecstatic crowds adulating Hitler, who is portrayed as a redeeming figure graciously accepting bouquets from laughing children, culminates in a vision of Nazi Germany as desirable and, quite simply, good. The Triumph of the Will is also unlike the loose strife flower, but not because it lacks aesthetic force. Unlike the flower which prompts us to set aside its destructive nature for the sake of appreciating its formal beauty, the glorification of Nazism structures the work as a whole. Content and form merge: we cannot set aside the content of a messianic Hitler because that content is precisely what forms the film into the kind of film that it is. Here, Carroll would likely insist that when content becomes paramount, aesthetic evaluation is helpless and ethical evaluation must take the reins. However, this is misguided. A purely formalistic survey, wherein we are asked to bracket the film’s veneration of Hitler in order to appreciate only its stylistic features, is not the only aesthetic approach. Form and content are reconciled in exploring how stylistic features convey substance, such that the entire expression of the work is included in aesthetic evaluation. Instead of setting aside the vision of Hitler’s goodness, we assess how that vision is communicated. Much like Othello is canonized not in spite of Iago’s treachery but partially because of it, the film succeeds aesthetically not in spite of its message, but partially because of it. Asking whether the historical Hitler is as messianic as he is represented is like asking whether space travel really occurs as instantaneously as it does in science fiction novels. The magical realism of Borges, wherein tigers are willed into existence and dead men play the gramophone, asks us to transcend the experience of waking reality – we leave the real behind eagerly because Borges is a master artist. We needn’t accept the validity of manifesting tigers for his stories to achieve “uptake,” and we needn’t accept the validity of Hitler’s goodness for a controversial film to achieve “uptake.” Of course, this doesn’t preclude moral critique of the film, just as science fiction novels do not preclude scientific critique. The provocative film promotes ethical questions and fears – as it should. Such critique, however, is nevertheless not aesthetic in nature. Nazi Germany remains despicable; the film remains a masterpiece.

Leaving aside the obvious objection that it is sometimes the very purpose of artworks to elicit moral disgust, it’s important to note that Carroll’s supposition that artworks which cannot achieve their desired responses fail aesthetically is simply not borne out in art history. It is doubtful that Manet painted his Olympia, depicting a nude prostitute, with the anticipation that its spectators will respond with inordinate hostility.  At its first 1865 exhibition, the most famous art critics were scandalized into a brutal disparagement which echoed the public’s immediate rejection of the painting. One critic depicted “the crowd thronging in front of the putrefied Olympia as if it were at the morgue,” another declared that “her face is stupid, her skin cadaverous,” a third declared that “she does not have a human form.” The disturbed public was even less generous with its praise than the critics. In such a case, the achievement of desired audience response figuring as an implicit feature of aesthetic merit begins to seem much less self-evident. Many artworks shared a similar fate. Sargent’s Madame X and Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon were scorned by an offended public, and Modigliani and Keats famously languished beneath the weight of critical rejection. Melville’s Moby Dick profoundly disturbed implicit ethical understanding, as well, but it would be difficult to argue that these works were therefore aesthetically defective. Similarly, Carroll’s thesis fails to account for historical shifts in what counts as ethical, and therefore what becomes implicit. While Petronius’ Satyricon roused its Roman audience to laughter, a typical contemporary reader may find nothing amusing in its explicit narration of sexual abuse. It seems ludicrous to suggest that the Satyricon was a good artwork in the first century, but is a defective artwork now. This is partially because the Satyricon is not read for its morality, but for its aesthetic virtue, which retains its hold on us despite changing ethical norms.

Now, let’s hear from the opposition, and consider the moderate autonomist response to Carroll’s moderate moralist thesis. James Anderson and Jeffrey Dean begin their answer to Carroll by invoking the not infrequent tension arising between moral and aesthetic convictions. Recalling Shakespeare’s Jewish merchant Shylock, who is hilariously and yet prejudicially written, the very conflict between morality and art is cited as evidence that they are indeed separate values. This conclusion seems intuitive. Ms. Eaton’s hesitation beside the lake, suspended between appreciation and moral hostility for the purple flower, is perhaps symptomatic of a dissonance that exists at the very heart of art. Great art often troubles and disturbs, deliberately estranging its audience from normative experience. Ethical norms, like scientific or historical norms, do not occupy a privileged position by floating above the material that art transforms. Picasso’s simultaneity disturbs normative perceptions of temporality and Shakespeare’s ghosts disturb normative perceptions of mortality. Why, then, ought normative perceptions of morality – those which Carroll terms implicit — remain immune from art’s relentlessly questioning irreverence? We do not regard Picasso’s Still Life with Compote and Glass as aesthetically defective because it refuses to conform to proper visual experience. If anything, its strangeness is what makes the work vital, significant, and powerful. Why, then, must we regard The Merchant of Venice as aesthetically defective because it refuses to conform to a proper morality? It is possible that the inner struggle such works engender between aesthetic power and ethical conviction, whether intended by the artist or not, contribute to their greatness. An audience’s implicit understanding, whether moral or otherwise, is never secure within the domain of art, and this insecurity is precisely what contributes to art’s awesome power.

A consuming artistic experience may very well include the superseding of normative values. As we read great literature we find ourselves identifying with dubious characters and perspectives, cheering on liars, cheats, conquerors, maniacs, and “bad guys” who overwhelm us with their charisma or their power. Of course, such identifications do not discredit the ethical import of artworks – they are simply not reduced to them. Morality and politics, much like any aspect of sociality, are art’s raw material, not its goal. To strip art of its power to estrange, in effect to neuter it, is to strip it of its aesthetic function. Does this mean that an artwork cannot be motivated by ethico-political aims? Of course it can. Nevertheless, ethico-political aims, however they are deployed within the work, will not necessarily render the work aesthetically valuable.

This is related to Anderson and Dean’s critique of Carroll. Although ethical and political criticism of artworks is a legitimate and important activity, Anderson and Dean argue that Carroll hasn’t succeeded in convincing them that identifying with ethically reprehensible attitudes entails aesthetic shortcomings. Relatedly, an artwork’s representation of ethically commendable attitudes does not result in aesthetic merit. Art can seduce its audience into identifying with “bad guys” and, in some cases, even outright evil, because, Anderson and Dean insist, “an artwork will never be worse because of its moral defects.” They explain that American Psycho’s aesthetic failure stems from its inability to satisfy the Aristotelian demand for audience sympathy, while its moral failure stems from its endorsement of immoral perspectives. Since its moral and aesthetic failings have different causes, then an inquiry into the work’s moral value will not yield any information about its aesthetic value.

Carroll decided to meet the challenge and published a response. Once again returning to his claim that artworks are incomplete structures requiring audiences to arrive with certain prior knowledge, Carroll argued that works must be so structured as to invite audiences to complete them appropriately. Facilitating the improper audience response not only prevents understanding, but subverts the aim of the work. Since this address to the audience is part of the structural design of the work, the failure to elicit the desired moral response is a failure in design and, therefore, an aesthetic failure. Carroll’s response-dependent formula again neglects the shifting nature of audiences, whose responses are deeply influenced by ethical, political, social, and sexual mores such that an Olympia which offends ethical sensibilities in 1865 is incapable of evoking class distinctions a century later. If the representation of a sallow prostitute seems ugly because ethical norms deem her so, and years later the spell she weaves stems from her strange beauty, perhaps achieving undesired responses is a sign not of aesthetic failure, but aesthetic revolution. A moral rejection might seem, to later generations, as little more than puritanical blindness.

Does this mean that American Psycho, along with Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey, might come to be regarded as a masterpiece a hundred years hence? Maybe! Certainly nothing in aestheticism’s reasoning would reject this possibility. More importantly, it means that rushing forth to disparage a work’s meaning by critiquing its moral content may not only prove to be historically misguided, but may negate the work’s offering of aesthetic power which is, amid today’s politicized debates, precisely what’s at stake.

Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall

In twelve words: Henry wants a divorce, the Pope refuses, Cromwell makes it happen anyway.

While I read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, everything else was uninteresting.  After all, here was heresy, plague, intrigue, murder, lust, betrayal – in short, England in the 1530s – all between two crumbling covers (by the time I’m finished with books, they’ve fallen to pieces, since I bring them everywhere, fold pages, and shamelessly write all over the margins).

However, it wasn’t only the dramadramadrama which gripped me.  It was also Mantel’s masterful portrait of Thomas Cromwell.

In his forties, rings on his fingers, wary, articulate, erudite, having been a mercenary, a lawyer, and a merchant, having seen too much to be trusting yet too wise to be cynical, able to recite the New Testament in Latin, Cromwell as chief advisor to Henry VIII contains multitudes and is one of the most nuanced characters in contemporary fiction:

“His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured; he is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed. He makes money and he spends it. He will take a bet on anything.”

In short, if you’re a man, you want to be him.  If you’re a woman, you’ve fallen desperately in love.  Even though the novel is set in the turbulent and brutal time of England’s break with Rome, replete with public executions and sweating sickness, it remains deeply human and, what’s more significant and difficult to pull off, humane.

Cromwell, whom history came to criticize as a despotic boor, isn’t all coolness and toughness.  Despite his morally ambivalent, if not downright amoral, context, he’s tender and his self-respect extends to others.  Whether the historical Cromwell matched this description or not is really beside the point.  This isn’t history, and if it is, Mantel is re-writing it.  For the purposes of reading and appreciating good books, things like facts, dates, and the looming shadow of What Really Happened, are simply the raw material from which the writer makes meaning.  The point isn’t to re-create the perspective of a king’s minister in the 16th century so we can live through him.  What’s important is how the writer appropriates history and establishes it into contemporary culture.  What’s crucial is what it can, and does, mean to us now.

Anyway, Mantel doesn’t simply write about a time period, or even about Thomas Cromwell; both worthy, but narrowly defined, subjects.  For me, the novel is about a large and roaming consciousness which self-reflexively filters and re-interprets some of Western history’s defining moments with great moral sensitivity and depth, and which begins in Mantel, moves through Cromwell, and ends in us.







Foucault: Why Political Freedom Seems Impossible

Foucault: Why Political Freedom Seems Impossible



Here’s what happens when you read too much Foucault: revolution appears pointless.  Not only explicit regime change with gas masks and molotov cocktails, but also implicit restructuring of thought and behavior, begin to seem utterly impossible.

It isn’t a coincidence that the rise of the modern state which, for Foucault, corresponds to a multiplication of social apparatuses for discipline and habituation, also marks the rapid decline of the public sphere, once exemplified by egalitarian social mingling in English coffee houses, squares, and literary salons, which encouraged deliberation and critique.  Perhaps this decline has something to do with a certain moral quietism which accompanies society’s internalization of what is presented as normal, natural, and necessary.  At the level of the state apparatus, which Foucault regards as a support structure for a much deeper power system, critique or transformation seems only to yield the multiplication of that ubiquitous system, though in a different guise.


Let’s consider two examples.

First, the process of habituation results in the neglect or destruction of that which cannot accommodate, or refuses to accommodate, normative categories.  This condition of marginalization exists where the institutions, responsibilities, and attitudes associated with the social apparatus cannot reach.  A contemporary example might be the social hysteria regarding, and eventual implications of, gay marriage.  Existing beyond the right to marry, some are condemned to live as second-class citizens, without access to certain forms of social capital, legal benefits, and social privileges.  However, when their right to marry is finally announced, to great fanfare and much rhetoric regarding social progress, they are rapidly assimilated into an extension of the state apparatus and the various obligations and regulations it imposes, such as family incentives, family values, tax codes, and so on.  What’s been won?  A simple reversal of surveillance.  Whether marginalized or integrated, whether excluding or including, the state apparatus preserves the web of regulation and punishment, though with a different face, under a different name, and with seemingly more progressive ends.  The passing from marginalization to assimilation, the fighting to achieve the right to be “plugged in” — whether by extending the right to marry or acknowledging the clamor of Iranian adolescents to connect on social media — can also be regarded as a wholly innocent but nevertheless invidious complicity in social surveillance.


The implication is that a state of marginalization is ultimately more free, or more subversive, than one of assimilation, even if it means the vagabond’s wanderings without recourse to legal or social rights.

Second, because power is not monolithic, instead perpetuating itself in a multiplicity of local struggles, it lacks a point of entry.  Like the Medusa, upon whose head a new snake uncoils when the previous one is sliced away, any challenge or change to elite interests only results in their quick readjustment and re-instantiation.  When the Russia of the early 1800s ensured that its golden sons, the young and ambitious aristocrats, had the finest of educations abroad, the country did not anticipate that these men would return brimming with ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity.  The subsequent uprising they engineered, the Decembrist revolt of 1825, was a terrible shock to the old vanguard of political power.  When the revolt was brutally crushed, the nobility’s sons executed or exiled, it seemed as if the status quo reigned once more.


However, it was this clumsy effort, Russia’s first revolution, which inspired and ushered in the Bolshevik revolt.  This brief history illuminates the spontaneous and unavoidable breaks and re-establishments of power relations: who could have supposed that the Russian nobility’s privileging its elite with access to travel and books would have destroyed that same nobility, but not for the sake of something we might term progress, but for the sake of one of the most oppressive regimes in human history?  Then, in a strange paradox, the very act of maintaining power’s interests has the potential to undermine those interests.

But here’s the discouraging part: these historical lapses and reversals cannot be deliberately engineered because any such meddling only brings about a more intense fortification of the state apparatus, as the examples of Soviet Russia or Napoleon’s France demonstrate.  If the alternatives to the punitive society are marginalization or a struggle which must result in the deeper entrenchment of normalizing systems, moral quietism often takes root.  Why bother voting?  70% of the population has no impact on policy, and is effectively disenfranchised. Still, the lapses occasioned by history, those tiny chasms between surveillance and surveillance, might become the new public sphere, spaces of tension for critical thought, deliberation, and (dare I say it?) even democracy.






In twelve words: Phedre wants her stepson, who wants his father’s enemy.  Then everyone dies.

Let’s smoke cigarettes and talk about Racine, agency, and fate.  Let’s.  Say yes.

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Que sera, sera.  While science contests the feasibility of free will more vehemently (do you read these things?), it seems that the Enlightenment ideal of unconstrained individual thought is troubled by the public’s favoring more archaic models of consciousness.  Ancient Indian philosophers insisted on an unavoidable karma, early Hebrews discussed “God’s will,” and the ancient Greeks deliberated upon moira.  That’s fate, gentlemen.

So, let’s talk about Racine’s tragedy Phedre as a dark meditation upon the possibility of choice in the midst of fatalistic forces roaming far beyond the scope of individual control or even awareness.  Fun!

The play, written and produced in 1677, sort of plagiarizes the tragedy of Euripides.  Theseus, king of Athens, husband to the doomed Phedre and father to the unlucky Hippolytus, is away from his city.  And good for him, because back home, there’s, like, drama drama drama.


While anxiously awaiting news of her husband, Phedre explains to her nurse, Oenone, why she’s been so mopey and whiny lately.   Turns out she’s in love!  Years ago, when she arrived at the court of Theseus a young, beautiful bride, she happened to turn around… and there he was.


Who was he?  Well, here’s where it gets good.  It was Hippolytus, her husband’s son.  She fell in love with her stepson!  Weird.  Hippolytus, meanwhile, has problems of his own.  He has an enormous crush on Aricia, the only survivor of a royal house which once warred against his father.  He’s pretty upset about it because having romantic feelings for people who tried to kill your family is totally inappropriate.

Phedre and Hippolytus are both frightened that their respective emotions will make Theseus really, really mad.  Because, you know, obviously. When the mistaken news of Theseus’ death unsettles the kingdom, Oenone urges Phedre to reveal her feelings to her stepson.  After all, you aren’t related, and with Theseus gone, who knows what can happen?  Go for it, girl.  YOLO.  Stupidly, Phedre tells Hippolytus the truth: “Your dad’s dead, so let’s get married.”  Predictably, Hippolytus declines: “Um, no, let’s not.”


Soon after, Theseus arrives.  He’s not dead after all!  Great!  It’s great, right?  Wrong.  Realizing that her husband is likely to find out about her incestuous betrayal, Phedre contemplates suicide.  Oenone, who adores her mistress and is willing to sacrifice anyone to avert her punishment, suggests that Phedre accuse Hippolytus of attempting to rape her.  Delirious with panic and becoming more and more incoherent, Phedre decides that this is a good idea.  (Note: accusing people who have not assaulted you of assaulting you is never, ever, ever a good idea.  Because of karma and stuff).

When Theseus confronts his son, Hippolytus is all, “Why would I want to sleep with that old hag?  I’m in love with Aricia.  You know, your nemesis, the one who tried to kill you.”


Then Phedre begins to feel bad for being such a jerk to Hippolytus.  She decides to tell her husband that they should just, like, get past the whole rape thing and be friends.  Before she has the chance, Theseus tells her, “Hey, Hippolytus in love with Aricia.  You know, my nemesis, the one who tried to kill me.”


Blind with jealousy, Phedre decides against absolving the innocent Hippolytus.  He’s in love with someone else?  He can go straight to hell.


So Theseus banishes his son from the kingdom, and soon after, Hippolytus is killed by a sea monster.  Seriously.

Phedre, in mounting panic, accuses Oenone of manipulation and disloyalty because the sea monster incident is totally her fault.  Oenone thinks, gosh, I’m horrible.  So she drowns herself.  Then Phedre appears before Theseus to defend his son’s innocence and repent of her illicit passion.  Sooo sorry, things just go a little out of control, you know how it is.  Then she drinks poison and dies.  That’s all.

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The ways human beings use stories to structure experience and create meaning is the focus of narrative criticism, whose practitioners seek to understand how the deployment of symbols in narratives reveals or conceals aspects of the world.  Utilizing the method of narrative criticism, let’s talk about how narrative can convey tension between agency and fate.  Phedre’s setting and characters reveal how Racine succeeds in achieving this objective.


While the physical features of the play’s setting are negligible, the kingdom of Athens as situated within the overall sociohistorical context of ancient Greece is of supreme significance.  Particularly since almost the entirety of the plot is borrowed from Euripides, tumblr_mxm8y7BJif1rrajnno1_1280

Phedre features the motifs and commitments of ancient Greek tragedy.  Racine’s Phedre is set within the confines of a superstitious, paganist, fatalistic culture.

From Hercules, who murdered his own children at the will of ruthless Hera, to Oedipus, who was destined to kill his father and seduce his mother, the notion that fate determines human behavior is a guiding principle of ancient Greek thought.  Phedre and Hippolytus, ensnared within such a culture, cannot help but reflect its beliefs and values, particularly in their relations to ancient Greek deities.  The events which befall Racine’s heroes can only occur in a context wherein gods capriciously and even arbitrarily toy with human lives.  Phedre consistenly summons the gods to witness her suffering at their hands.


Addressing her grandfather Helios at the opening of the play, she cries, “Noble and blazing Author of a race/ Of sad, unhappy mortals!” (Phedre 1.3).  Soon after, she wonders: “Where, where have I let stray/ My longings and my self-control?  Oenone!/  The Gods deprive me of the use of it” (Phedre 1.3).  Prior to explaining her forbidden love for Hippolytus to her nurse, Phedre laments: “Your fatal hatred Venus!  Oh, your wrath! … Since Venus wills it so, I perish now” (Phedre 1.3).

Similarly, when Hippolytus admits himself in love with Aricia, he asks, “Am I, in turn, to find myself enslaved?/  Can the Gods wish to humble me so far?” (Phedre 1.1).  When grieving the death of his father, Hippolytus says, “The Gods at last have doomed him, even him/ Alcides’ friend, companion, and successor,/ To the homicidal shears of Fate”  (Phedre 2.2).

Hippolytus and his father, the great Theseus, are both admitted to be the pawns of overwhelming forces.  It is important to note that Theseus is a hero who is famed for slaying the Minotaur.  He is not a cowering and frightened creature, imploring the decisions of the gods.  He acts within the world with considerable freedom and power.  Nevertheless, the gods can overpower “even him.”  The “homicidal shears of Fate” do not distinguish between coward and hero.  Theseus and Hippolytus are indeed strong decision makers, but only inasmuch as they are divinely ordained to be so.  Such heroic greatness pursued within, rather than beyond, divinity’s constraints, is possible only to a citizen of an early civilization.  The historical setting of Phedre, which juxtaposes individual will with fatalistic power, is chronologically ancient and hierarchically supernatural.  The characters literally walk within a world of gods, demigods, and monsters.  The active presence of gods which can condemn a Phedre and monsters which can murder a Hippolytus is a vivid demonstration of human choices conflicting with external forces.


Phedre is also ideologically situated within a seventeenth century, religious, Western culture.  Much has been made of the Jansenism of Racine.  Educated in the Jansenist community of Port-Royal, Racine was invariably exposed to Jansenist thought, which insisted upon humanity’s depraved nature caused by original sin.  This inescapably fallen state reappears in Phedre’s dramatic inability to overcome the perversity of her own desires.  Much like the Jansenist followers who could not overcome the stain of original sin and would be redeemed only by communion with God, Phedre seeks the resolution of her suffering beyond the horizons of ordinary possibility.


For the Jansenists, salvation was achieved through God’s grace.  For the pagan Greeks, human transcendence led to death.  In either case, Phedre reminds us that redemption cannot be found within the everyday round of human life.  Furthermore, the setting involves a moralistic stance ushered in by the play’s reliance upon the incest taboo.  Such love is presented as so monstrous that Phedre must die rather than endure it, and when the innocent Hippolytus stands accused of it, his horrified father banishes him from the kingdom.

The incest taboo emerges from the guarded parameters of sexual activity within society, undertaken as protection of familial and social organization.  Sociologist Talcott Parsons writes: “It is essential to the family that more than in any other grouping in societies, overt erotic attraction and gratification should be given an institutionalized place in its structure … eroticism is not only permitted but carefully regulated; and the incest taboo is merely a very prominent negative aspect of this more general regulation.”  The defining feature of the incest taboo is that it’s a prohibition.  Its prohibitive nature means that incestuous behavior is always necessarily a violation of societal values and trust.  Thus, what Phedre feels and what Hippolytus is accused of feeling are tantamount to rebellion, lawlessness, and destruction of the sociocultural fabric.


It is significant that Racine does not explain any of this.  Phedre does not elucidate to the audience exactly why her passion for Hippolytus is an ethical failure, and Theseus does not elaborate upon why he is justified in banishing his son from Athens.  For Racine, such values are implicit within the work and automatically assumed.  Racine does not tell us how to judge his characters, and he expected his audience to arrive at the theater with a tacit moral understanding which they then applied to the events they witnessed.  The modern reader still approaches the play with the unspoken awareness that a woman’s desiring her stepson is perverse, immoral, and unjustifiable.  Thus, the play relies upon a wider sociohistorical context in order to communicate its message.  Without this implicit moral awareness, the events of the play would be incomprehensible.

In a profound sense, then, the reader participates in structuring the setting of the play.  Phedre’s setting is not simply prepared by Racine for the reader to step into – the reader also brings a set of ideological commitments which enable the play to function as a tragedy.  It is precisely because of this ideological setting, which is simultaneously presumed by the audience and represented by Racine, that the characters and interactions become substantial and meaningful as manifestations of the struggle between human agency and inhuman forces.  Phedre’s setting does not merely structure the play for the reader, but also delimits the possibilities for its characters in a way that illuminates the struggle for individual freedom. tumblr_nlivklm38o1qhs5k0o2_r1_400

The fatalism of Greek myth, the irredeemable human nature of Jansenism, and the ideology of the incest taboo, all implicitly conspire to make explicit an unassailable wall of abstract obstacles against which Phedre’s characters find themselves crashing.




The personalities and interactions of Phedre’s characters help facilitate Racine’s objective of presenting agency conflicting with fate.  Phedre, Hippolytus, and Oenone are the principal actors whose critical choices determine and delimit events.

Phedre is remarkably single-minded and uncompromising.  Her illicit love has consumed her utterly.  As a consequence of her alleged impurity, she seeks death.  Not, however, as a desired end, but as the unavoidable outcome of her true desire’s incompatibility with what is possible.  Vera Orgel writes about Racine’s tragedy: “The greatest catastrophe is not the failure but the breaking of the mainspring of life, renunciation of the unattainable goal and the end of endeavor.”  For Phedre, fulfillment is impossible: the very nature of her passion forbids its realization. antigone_hidalgo_lopez_museum Phedre’s very being is at odds with life, and her tragedy is that she cannot change.  She cannot simply “get over” her feelings, despite her recognition that they are a “crime,” a “malady,” and her “love is horrible,” and she would rather die than confess to “a love so black” (Phedre 1. 3).

Her reason is intact, but her will is disobedient.  What binds her so hopelessly, she is convinced, is the tyranny of a petulant Venus.  Of course, whether there is actually a scheming Venus or not is beside the point.  Venus or no Venus, the cruel conflict is clear: something beyond the limits of human possibility urges Phedre to seek that which is beyond the limits of feasibility.  In this struggle, Racine casts the opposition of human agency and fate.  What Phedre longs for is forbidden, and rather than overcome her weakness, she dies.  To challenge the edicts of fate, Racine tells us, is suicidal.  The Racinian hero is tragic inasmuch as his life remains eternally uncompleted.

When, deceived by the supposed death of Theseus, Oenone persuades Phedre to hope to marry Hippolytus, a veritable social disintegration threatens.  For Phedre to achieve what she longs for, not only in the sense of possessing Hippolytus but in the wider sense of living publicly as his wife in a world wherein her violation of the incest taboo is acceptable, her entire social order must be undermined.  After all, the incest taboo is the foundational law of the original social unit – the family – from which the wider sociocultural context emerges: the prohibition of incest is the original law which begets all other rules of civilization.  Phedre’s nature, quite literally, exists against the world.


To dispel any possibility of self-realization even further, Racine reminds us that Phedre is the daughter of Pasiphae, who was cursed to procreate with a bull in the madness of her inhuman ardor.  Even this horror, however, is presented as ordained by the gods.  Phedre cries, “Venus! …/ Into what aberrations did love cast my mother!” (Phedre 1.3).  Phedre’s monstrous fall is determined not only by the gods and the social edicts governing proper sexuality, but also by her parentage.  Her mother’s “aberrations,” it seems, predict and perhaps even prefigure her own.  In these myriad ways, then, Phedre is bound.  She seems hopelessly doomed, which is precisely what Racine wants his audience to recognize.

Such fatalism, however, is not Racine’s only objective.  He also wants to present the defiant blazing of human will in spite of fate’s closed doors.  Irrational, hopeless, and pathetic as it may be, the tension between pre-determination and will emerges most poignantly in the very fact that Phedre dares to love Hippolytus in spite of every possible reason why she should not.  In the simplest terms, she loves him “anyway.”  After all, if human beings were mindless automatons able only to parrot their own boundaries, Phedre wouldn’t be capable of even conceiving of such a love.  Her passion is proof of her freedom, however limited it may be.


Hippolytus, too, is fated to desire what is forbidden.  In loving Aricia, he finds himself loving that which represents the violent destruction of his family: “That young sole survivor of a tribe/ Which fatally has long conspired against/ My family: Aricia” (Phedre 1.1).  Furthermore, he knows his father will resent the match: “Did I forget/ The eternal barriers between us two?/ … Against the wrath/ Of an infuriated father, launch/ My youth upon a course of love so mad?” (Phedre 1.1).

Much like Phedre, however, Hippolytus protests that he is not to blame.  Known as prideful and solitary, Hippolytus has scorned the snares of romance and women, preferring instead the less intimate arts of racing horses and hunting.  However, something beyond his own reason beckons him to Aricia.  He asks, “And even if my pride could ever melt/ Should I have been insane enough to choose/ Aricia for my conqueror?” (Phedre 1.1).  The guilty love, Hippolytus explains, is not his choice.  Now that he is captured, however, he regards Aricia as his “conqueror,” once more underscoring his helplessness in the romantic matter.

In great contrast to Phedre, however, Hippolytus is virtuous.  The play’s characters know him for his chaste, monastic nature.  He remains virginal and aloof, casting cool and superior glances at the warm entanglements of eroticism. 56398_104882452_l His tutor, Theramenes, describes Hippolytus thus: “So proud and wild,/ Making a chariot fly along the shore;/ Or, practiced in the art that Neptune taught,/ Taming unbroken horses to the rein” (Phedre 1.1).  Hippolytus spends his days playing with horses and chariots — his interests, like those of a young boy, are childlike, innocent, and free from intrigue.

Furthermore, Hippolytus knows he is virtuous: “When I grew to riper years and knew myself,/ I praised, myself, the self I came to know” (Phedre 1.1).  What is Hippolytus praising himself for?  His “Amazonian pride,” (Phedre 1.1) which keeps him sexually pure.

When discoursing on the myriad accomplishments of Theseus, Hippolytus critiques his father’s wayward eroticism.  He and Theramenes discuss how Theseus slew the Minotaur, displayed the strength of Hercules, and punished pirates.  However, Theseus is not romantically consistent or honest, and Hippolytus laments his father’s “less glorious deeds/ His promise made and broken everywhere… Too credulous creatures by his love deceived… How happily I would have then wiped out/ The base half of so fine a history” (Phedre 1.1).  His father’s past, Hippolytus complains, is “base.”  He regards himself as enough removed from such impurity to be able to judge it accurately.  Fifty years ago, Hippolytus may have been described as a prig.  Precisely because of such self-conscious goodness, Hippolytus does not garner the audience’s compassion as the self-deprecating Phedre does.  We admire his scruples, of course, but we can’t quite grasp why Phedre loves him.  We certainly can’t.

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Given Hippolytus’ aggressive goodness, it’s all the more remarkable that someone as rigid as he is could possibly fall into the snares of erotic love.  Theremanes, guessing at his charge’s passion for Aricia, asks, “What heart has ever been too brave to be/ Vanquished by Venus?” (Phedre 1.1) and later cries, “What is your pretended pride of speech?/ Confess it, all has changed!” (Phedre 1.1).  Hippolytus cannot maintain his own scornful nature, because the gods do not will it so.  If it were up to him, he would continue to race and play along the shore, contemptuously frowning at the impious desires of others.  Instead, “all has changed,” and he finds himself bound to love his enemy.

Just as with Phedre’s powerful emotion, the guilty love of Hippolytus for Aricia displays not only his helplessness, but also his paradoxical freedom.  Love changes him.  Only emotionally flexible beings are capable of change, of response to the bursting and raving of circumstance.  He does not remain static and stubborn, like a fixed sculpture or a puppet, but exists in subjective relation to other subjects.  Even he, the audience is led to think, the proud and solitary monk, can suddenly begin to burn with a very human feeling.  Significantly, his humbling transformation softens him in the audience’s eyes, as well.  Suddenly, Hippolytus ceases to be a self-aggrandizing demigod who pushes us away with his self-righteous bragging, and becomes a sympathetic character, whose dreams we support.  From one perspective, the alteration Hippolytus undergoes is proof of how buffeted and controlled by fate he must be.  However, it is also evidence of his great capacity for daring, for defying, for transgressing authority’s boundaries and his own stubborn nature.  After all, he didn’t simply fall in love with a nice, acceptable girl his father might have liked.  He fell in love with his family’s nemesis, a love he must denounce and yet cannot.  In these paradoxical, seemingly contradictory ways, Hippolytus, too, is a study in the tense hues of agency’s struggle against fate.


Perhaps the freest character in the tragedy is Phedre’s nurse, Oenone.  It’s important to mention Racine’s own preface to the 1677 publication of Phedre.  He explains that although the original Euripides play featured Phedre coming to the decision to accuse Hippolytus of rape on her own, he decided against casting his heroine in such a merciless light.  Racine explains his decision: “I have taken the trouble to make her a little less hateful than she is in the ancient versions of this tragedy, in which she herself resolves to accuse Hippolytus.  I judged that calumny had about it something too base and too black to be put into the mouth of a Princess who for most of the time is only noble and virtuous.”  But is this convincing?

Also, whereas the Euripidean Theseus learns of his son’s innocence after conversing with a goddess long after Phedre’s suicide, Racine generously insists that his noble heroine herself inform her husband of the truth.  If Phedre is absolved of too much cruelty, then who will be to blame?  Well, Racine clarifies, “This depravity seemed to me more appropriate to the character of a nurse, whose inclinations might be supposed to be more servile.”


Thus, the ultimate dichotomy between Phedre and Oenone is established, as between master and servant, elite and common, noble and depraved.  In some sense, Oenone is trapped by her lowly circumstance.  She is destined to remain socially inferior by virtue of her rank and occupation.  In a different sense, however, Oenone’s lack of courtliness prefigures her greater freedom.  While Phedre accepts insurmountable obstacles, bemoaning the wickedness and unfairness of divine inevitability, Oenone fights against the tide of circumstance.  Less bound to royal duty, Oenone’s life instincts can burn more surely. Contrasting the two characters, Thomas Braga writes: “Oenone’s ‘oeil vivant,’ basically pagan, existential, energetic, pragmatic, a life-oriented point of view, contrasts vividly with Phedre’s ‘oeil mourant,’ essentially Jansenist, pessimistic, guilt-ridden, lethargic, and moribund.”  There is dignity in suffering, Racine seems to tell us, and even more dignity in accepting it.  Oenone’s alleged servility is correlated directly with her unwillingness to suffer.  Or, to put it more boldly, it is correlated directly with her unwillingness to submit to fate.

Despite Phedre’s adulterous and incestuous desires, it is Oenone who is accused of ushering in the kingdom’s doom, which kills Phedre, Hippolytus, and Oenone herself.  Why?  Precisely because Oenone is the prime mover of the action – indeed, she is the one who chooses, and urges Phedre, to act.  After hearing of Theseus’ rumored death, Oenone argues, “By Theseus’ death all knots have been untied/ Which made your love a horror and a crime./ You need no longer fear Hippolytus” (Phedre 1.5).  From whence comes this radical meddling?  Is it truly from Oenone’s “servile” rank?

The play’s events belie Racine’s own judgment in his preface.

At the opening of the play, Phedre is overcome with grief and guilt, longing only for death.  Oenone will not hear of it: “Although only a feeble ray of life/ Remains with you, yet sure I will forestall/ Your voyage to the dead, and get there first” (Phedre 1.3).  After the failure of her various attempts to boost Phedre’s spirits and alter her decision to die, the desperate nurse scrambles to think of some other plan to keep the queen alive.  Seizing upon the news of the king’s death, Oenone explains: “Madame, I ceased to urge that you should live;/ I thought to follow you into the grave/ From which I had no more the heart to turn you;/ But this new blow prescribes for you new laws” (Phedre 1.5).  In begging her to approach Hippolytus and consider marrying him, Oenone is acting to prevent the death of Phedre.  If marrying Hippolytus will make her queen content, Oenone will enthusiastically urge the possibility.  When the kingdom learns that Theseus is alive and Phedre once more returns to her melancholy refrain of suicide, Oenone begs her to live for her son: “Think of a son whose only hope you are” (Phedre 2.5).  When that calculation fails, Oenone grasps at what seems like an avenue to Phedre’s liberty: “Be bold, accuse him first!/ Charge him with the same crime of which today/ He can accuse you!” (Phedre 3.3).  With this temptation, Oenone buries herself in dishonor and is rightly regarded as bringing about Phedre’s suicide and Hippolytus’ murder.


The question, nevertheless, remains: is Oenone’s motivation base and unworthy of a “noble Princess?”  The activities of the nurse reveal that her motive is far from depraved and, in fact, functions at the highest level of compassion and loyalty.  She cries, “Alas! Whether I be to blame or not/ For your misfortunes, what is there on earth/ Of which I am not capable to save you?” (Phedre 3.1).  It is not from inferiority of rank that Oenone acts so magnanimously, but from her greater sense of agency.  Despite the edicts of the gods which doomed Phedre, Oenone struggles to transcend them and bring about a state of satisfaction and happiness.  Indeed, Oenone’s is the most active, striving, willing role in the play.  Phedre only languishes and laments, while Oenone fights to grasp the reins of fate and alter its direction.  Of course, the nature of Racinian drama must frustrate her work.  The profound compassion motivating her struggle must become a tacit accomplice in a predetermined mercilessness. It is not Oenone’s inherent inability to be ethical, but rather the inhumane brutality of the gods, which is the source of Phedre’s downfall.

This is how Racine reminds us that human will counts for very little in the powerful surge of uncontrollable circumstance.  Nevertheless, while Phedre and Hippolytus dare to live against fortune only in their inward, guilty, erotic worlds, Oenone defies laws and events in the sphere of the everyday.  In seeking to marry Phedre and accuse Hippolytus, thereby privileging sensual happiness above social duty, Oenone subverts the incest taboo, the fatalistic Greek value system, and the guilty Jansenist conscience.  She contests the rules of what is acceptable, good, and just.  Oenone is the only character who truly acts and whose decisions provide most of the impetus for the play’s events.


Phedre’s ancient, pagan, ideologically rife setting, influenced as it is by Racine’s strict Jansenism, becomes a powerful symbol for the intractable trappings of fate.  The three most significant characters – Phedre, Hippolytus, and Oenone – are enmeshed in a world largely not of their choosing.  With their futile struggles and profound melancholy, Racine paints a world wherein human will has little influence.  Oenone, the most daring and free character in the play, may be justly regarded as subverting this bleak picture.  Of course, in a more profound sense, it is Oenone’s seeming agency that brings about Phedre’s death, thus linking her into a fateful chain which she cannot tear asunder, either.  Even the character with the greatest freedom can only contribute to a fated end.  Nevertheless, the struggle for love and happiness, simultaneously foolish and great, permeates Phedre’s theater.  Even as the wills of the characters are frustrated again and again, a perhaps irrational defiance underwrites their tragedies.  Human freedom, it seems, is sometimes simply a matter of stubborn faith.  By aesthetically intermingling the play’s setting and characters, Racine’s narrative is able to convey the fragility of freedom.