And for heaven’s sake, publish nothing before you are thirty.
— “A Letter to a Young Poet,” The Death of the Moth and Other Essays, Virginia Woolf
It often strikes me anew how many of my favourite artists are men on the fringes of gayness, men who are not heterosexual, but are not quite at home in whatever we might call the ‘gay world’, the however-much-coherent culture it is. These men have followed me through my life, right from the start: Morrissey, Michael Stipe, and finally Robert Dessaix. I’m not sure, not yet sure, if it’s a personal affinity I feel, or if their profound non-belonging, queerness about as fundamental as it can get, has sharpened both their sensibility and their minds, and made them able to accurately perceive the complexity of, and judge with understanding, both the world and themselves.
In any case, Robert Dessaix is perhaps my favourite Australian writer (speaking empirically, I enjoy Dessaix’s writing often and much). Reading Arabesques in parallel with a scholarly history of the Arab world is a great pleasure, because the shortcomings of each book cancel each other out. Whereas one provides clear facts ad dull nauseam, the light and self-centred (and West-centred) musings of the other are the easiest to enjoy when you, as a reader, feel confidently knowledgeable about the places and people he encounters to enjoy your read dialogically.
When I read Dessaix, I often find many quotes to quote, of both kinds: sometimes I feel like Dessaix says things I think and feel, and sometimes I feel Dessaix is being told things I would like many (Australian) people to know and understand better. In particular, I felt great relief when Dessaix was prepared to dissect the Protestant nature of his own culture. It is one of those aspects of Australia I find most infuriatingly, bafflingly, indefensibly horrible, and so much of it comes from its own extremism (if there is one great notion that Protestant Christian culture has no grasp of, it is the concept of balance or moderation, and the best way to understand this is to observe people’s eating habits). They are good quotes for a Saturday afternoon, and I type quickly, so here they are:
1. on happiness
‘You Westerners,’ Yacoub said with his usual elegant weariness, ‘seem fixated on the idea of happiness. You chase after it everywhere, yet you never seem to catch hold of it. I understand pleasure, comfort, beauty, passion, peace, love…’
‘You? Love?’ Zaïda was open-mouther. A drop of violet ice-cream trickled down her chin.
‘…but I don’t understand what you mean by “happiness”.’
‘I can tell you,’ I said, trying to head Zaïda off before she made a fool of herself. This was the woman who had once rung her lover to thank him for a bouquet of white roses he’d sent her for her birthday and eaten them, petal by petal, while they exchanged honeyed nothings across the Atlantic.
‘Camus came up with the perfect definition.’
‘Camus!’ Zaïda looked puzzled. ‘But he committed suicide.’
‘What’s that got to do with it? Clamence in The Fall says: “I took pleasure in my own nature, and we all know that that’s what happiness. is.”
‘That’s a rather self-satisfied, self-serving notion of happiness, don’t you think?’ I hadn’t supposed that Miriam would give in without a tussle. ‘What about…’
‘Feeding the hungry? Helping the blind to cross the street? I’m not talking about the morality of it, I’m just saying that that’s what we Westerners, as Yacoub calls us, want in order to be happy: the right to take pleasure in our own nature as we see fit.’
‘Whereas we Orientals only want the right to take pleasure in God’s.’ Yacoub smiled one of his smiles.
‘But you don’t believe in God – you told me so yourself in Blidah.’
‘No, I don’t believe in God, and I’m not an atheist.’
2. on protestantism
…surely there are two kinds of forgetting: one is forever and the other is a momentary frenzy. Well, the frenzy might last a month or even a few years, but it doesn’t blot out memory for good. IT’s just taking your hidden self out for an airing.
‘Even some Buddhist monks,’ I said to Daniel, as we walked back to the car, ‘have days of divine madness. It keeps them sane. They take up with loose women and go on drunken rampages.’
‘Yes, it’s called “Crazy Wisdom”. It’s Tibetan’ How annoying that he should know that. ‘And it’s not about “keeping sane”, it’s about flux. It’s about taming instead of clinging, and then letting go. I have the feeling that your Gide may have been too Protestant to believe in flux. He probably believed in virtue and sin.’ I think he partly meant me. But he had a point: Protestants are particularly given to dualities such as sin and virtue, belief and unbelief, spirit and matter. It’s one thing or the other with us. Catholics, on the other hand, have ways of striking a bargain with God. Flux is something they understand.
(There follows a 10-or-20-page discussion of being a Protestant heathen, of Catholic comfort versus Protestant austerity, of Protestantism leading naturally to atheism, etc – but which I am too lazy to reproduce here.)
3. on travel
‘When the absurdity of my life begins to nauseate me, I don’t commit suicide, you see, as Camus did, I travel.’
‘How could being in Algeria make your life less absurd? If life is nauseatingly absurd anywhere in this world, it’s in Algeria.’
‘It doesn’t make life any less absurd, but for a few days, a week, a month, it can make mine seem worth living. I can take pleasure there in my own nature.’ This sounded less flippant than Gide’s observation about places where he found himself interesting – but it amounted to much the same thing, I suppose. ‘In a way I can’t at home – or at any rate not often.’
‘Like Gide, do you mean? Les petits musiciens?’
‘Yes and no, actually. Travel is an art, it seems to me, just like painting or writing a novel, it crystallises things. It crystallises me. Whenever I feel that I’m on the point of disappearing, dissolving into a thousand selves – and that happens when you don’t feel you have a single source – I make art. I tell myself a story, I tell others a story, and I travel. And tell stories about my travels. I crystallise anew. (…) I make art – and travel – both to remember and to forget. Like a crystal, you see – both solid and translucent at the same time.’
‘To remember and forget what, precisely?’
‘To remember who I’ve been and also who I wanted to be, to write a new script and act it out without shame. To find my source.’
‘That sounds like God again. And does it work?’
‘No, of course not, but that’s no reason to stay at home. But I also travel – and write – to forget, to sink into the river of unmindfulness, to be utterly transparent, crystal-clear, to just be.’
‘And does that work?’
‘For a day or two, if I’m lucky.’
4. on how Australians perceive Europeans
Yacoub spoke with his accustomed world-weariness tinged with mischief and, as usual, he was annoyingly difficult to read.
I found I was standing before acres of ploughed earth. There was a fence keeping me from stepping into the field, with two lines of barbed wire, and I could see how this fence and the cluster of three or four trees above me were the only things breaking the wind for miles. All along the fence, especially along the lower line of wire, all sorts of rubbish had caught and tangled. It was like the debris you get on a sea-shore: the wind must have carried some of it for miles and miles before finally coming up against these trees and these two lines of wire. Up in the branches of the trees, too, I could see, flapping about, torn plastic sheeting and bits of old carrier bags. That was the only time, as I stood there, looking at that strange rubbish, feeling the wind coming across those empty fields, that I started to imagine just a little fantasy thing, because this was Norfolk after all, and it was only a couple of weeks since I’d lost him. I was thinking about the rubbish, the flapping plastic in the branches, the shore-line of odd stuff caught along the fencing, and I half-closed my eyes and imagined this was the spot where everything I’d ever lost since my childhood had washed up, and I was now standing here in front of it, and if I waited long enough, a tiny figure would appear on the horizon across the field, and gradually get larger until I’d see it was Tommy, and he’d wave, maybe even call. The fantasy never got beyond that–I didn’t let it–and though the tears rolled down my face, I wasn’t sobbing or out of control. I just waited a bit, then turned back to the car, to drive off to wherever it was I was supposed to be.
— Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go
Stepan Arkadyevitch had learned easily at school, thanks to his excellent abilities, but he had been idle and mischievous, and therefore was one of the lowest in his class. But in spite of his habitually dissipated mode of life, his inferior grade in the service, and his comparative youth, he occupied the honorable and lucrative position of president of one of the government boards at Moscow. This post he had received through his sister Anna’s husband, Alexey Alexandrovitch Karenin, who held one of the most important positions in the ministry to whose department the Moscow office belonged. But if Karenin had not got his brother- in-law this berth, then through a hundred other personages— brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles, and aunts—Stiva Oblonsky would have received this post, or some other similar one, together with the salary of six thousand absolutely needful for him, as his affairs, in spite of his wife’s considerable property, were in an embarrassed condition.
Half Moscow and Petersburg were friends and relations of Stepan Arkadyevitch. He was born in the midst of those who had been and are the powerful ones of this world. One-third of the men in the government, the older men, had been friends of his father’s, and had known him in petticoats; another third were his intimate chums, and the remainder were friendly acquaintances. Consequently the distributors of earthly blessings in the shape of places, rents, shares, and such, were all his friends, and could not overlook one of their own set; and Oblonsky had no need to make any special exertion to get a lucrative post. He had only not to refuse things, not to show jealousy, not to be quarrelsome or take offense, all of which from his characteristic good nature he never did. It would have struck him as absurd if he had been told that he would not get a position with the salary he required, especially as he expected nothing out of the way; he only wanted what the men of his own age and standing did get, and he was no worse qualified for performing duties of the kind than any other man.
– Anna Karenina, by Lev Tolstoy, via Project Gutenberg.
Hemlock is high in soluble fiber.
A self-directed bullet contains no fatty acids.
Asphyxiation eliminates 2nd-hand smoke.
Carbon Monoxide is nitrate-free.
Sleeping pills reduce the body’s need for sugar.
A blow from a sword is high in iron.
Hanging flushes the body of its toxins.
Cyanide cleanses potentially harmful resins.
Bleach cuts cholesterol levels.
Jumping simulates weightlessness.
Drowning ensures hydration.
Smoking improves eyesight.
An oncoming train is filled
With many fruits and vegetables.
Running a car into a tree reduces
The need for red meat consumption.
What the available details of Wallace’s life and ideas suggest is that we in the U.S. are maybe not doing a very good job of taking care of recovering addicts, or of those suffering from depression.
The new Me Generation of the aughts is like a steroids version of the innocent ’70s one, which really amounted to little more than plain hedonism. There wasn’t as much guilt and self-recrimination in those days. Today this focus on “Me” is something more like an obsession with our faults, a sick perfectionism, coupled with an insatiable need for attention; the idea of the ‘star’ as something we want to be.
A case can be made that U.S. society is very much obsessed with “self-help,” which involves thinking a whole lot (too much, even) about yourself and your own problems, seeing everything only as it relates to the self, rather than seeing oneself as a valuable part of a larger valuable whole; this is one of the themes of The Pale King.
“We’ve changed the way we think of ourselves as citizens. We don’t think of ourselves as citizens in the old sense of being small parts of something larger and infinitely more important to which we have serious responsibilities. We do still think of ourselves as citizens in the sense of being beneficiaries–we’re actually conscious of our rights as American citizens and the nation’s responsibilities to us and ensuring we get our share of the American pie. We think of ourselves now as eaters of the pie instead of makers of the pie. So who makes the pie?”
Maria Bustillos, Inside David Foster Wallace’s Private Self-Help Library
Bismarck’s epigram about diplomacy and sausage applies also to the way we Americans seem to feel about professional athletes. We revere athletic excellence, competitive success. And it’s more than attention we pay; we vote with our wallets. We’ll spend large sums to watch a truly great athlete; we’ll reward him with celebrity and adulation and will even go so far as to buy products and services he endorses.
But we prefer not to countenance the kinds of sacrifices the professional-grade athlete has made to get so good at one particular thing. Oh, we’ll pay lip service to these sacrifices – we’ll invoke luck clichés about the lonely heroism of Olympic athletes, the pain and analgesia of football, the early rising and hours of practice and restricted diets, the privations, the prefight celibacy, etc. But the actual facts of the sacrifices repel us when we see them: basketball geniuses who cannot read, sprinters who dope themselves, defensive tackles who shoot up bovine hormones until they collapse and explode. We prefer not to consider the shockingly vapid and primitive comments uttered by athletes in postcontest interviews, or to imagine what impoverishments in one’s mental life would allow people actually to think in the simplistic way great athletes seem to think. Note the way “up-close and personal profiles” of professional athletes strain so hard to find evidence of a rounded human life – outside interests and activities, charities, values beyond the sport. We ignore what’s obvious, that most of this straining is farce. It’s farce because the realities of top-level athletics today require an early and total commitment to one pursuit. An almost ascetic focus. 42 A subsumption of almost all other features of human life to their one chosen talent and pursuit. A consent to live in a world that, like a child’s world, is very serious and very small.
42 Sex- and substance-issues notwithstanding, professional athletes are in many ways our culture’s holy men: they give themselves over to a pursuit, endure great privation and pain to actualize themselves at it, and enjoy a relationship to perfection that we admire and reward (the monk’s begging bowl, the RBI-guru’s eight-figure contract) and love to watch even though we have no inclination to walk that road ourselves. In other words they do it “for” us, sacrifice themselves for our (we imagine) redemption.
David Foster Wallace, ‘Tennis player Michael Joyce’s professional artistry as a paradigm of certain stuff about choice, freedom, limitation, joy, grotesquerie, and human completeness’, in A supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again, p.237
At a lecture I was giving at a large West Coast university in the spring of 2008, the female students talked extensively about how much they preferred to have a completely waxed pubic area as it made them feel “clean,” “hot,” and “well groomed.” As they excitedly insisted that they themselves chose to have a Brazilian wax, one student let slip that her boyfriend had complained when she decided to give up on waxing. Then there was silence. I asked the student to say more about her boyfriend’s preferences and how she felt about his criticism. After she spoke, other students joined in, only now the conversation took a very different turn. The excitement in the room gave way to a subdued discussion of how some boyfriends had even refused to have sex with nonwaxed girlfriends, saying they “looked gross.” One student told the group that her boyfriend bought her a waxing kit for Valentine’s Day, while yet another sent out an e-mail to his friends joking about his girlfriend’s “hairy beaver.” No, she did not break up with his; she got waxed instead. Continue reading
In all my years of reading Slavoj Žižek, I somehow managed not to read his (Lacanian?) interpretation of superego until a few weeks ago. His distinction between the Law (the external prohibition) and the superego (the internalised injunction to enjoy) is probably the biggest and most delicious idea I’ve encountered all year. Here:
Superego emerges where the Law – the public Law, the Law articulated in the public discourse – fails; at this point of failure, the public is compelled to search for support in an illegal enjoyment.
Superego is the obscene ‘nightly’ law that necessarily redoubles and accompanies, as its shadow, the ‘public’ Law. This inherent and constitutive splitting in the Law is the subject of Rob Reiner’s film A Few Good Men, the court-martial drama about two Marines accused of murdering one of their fellow-soldiers. The military prosecutor claims that the two Marines’ act was a deliberate murder, whereas the defence succeeds in proving that the defendants simply followed the so-called ‘Code Red’, which authorizes the clandestine night-time beating of a fellow-soldier who, in the opinion of his peers or the superior officer, has broken the ethical code of the Marines.
The function of this ‘Code Red’ is extremely interesting: it condones an act of transgression – illegal punishment of a fellow-soldier – yet at the same time it reaffirms the cohesion of the group – it calls for an act of supreme identification with group values. Such a code must remain under cover of night, unacknowledged, unutterable – in public, everybody pretends to know nothing about it, or even actively denies its existence. It represents the ‘spirit of community’ at its purest, exerting the strongest pressure on the individual to comply with its mandate of group identification. Yet, simultaneously, it violates the explicit rules of community life. (…) Where does this splitting of the law into the written public Law and its underside, the ‘unwritten’, obscene secret code, come from? From the incomplete, ‘non-all’ character of the public Law: explicit, public rules do not suffice, so they have to be supplemented by a clandestine ‘unwritten’ code aimed at those who, although they violate no public rules, maintain a kind of inner distance and do not truly identify with the ‘spirit of community’.
As numerous analyses from Bakhtin onwards have shown, periodic transgressions of the public law are inherent to the social order; they function as a condition of the latter’s stability. (Bakhtin’s mistake – or, rather, that of some of his followers – was to present an idealized image of these ‘transgressions’, while passing in silence over lynching parties, and so on, as the crucial form of the ‘carnivalesque suspension of social hierarchy’). What ‘holds together’ a community most deeply is not so much identification with the Law that regulates the community’s ‘normal’ everyday circuit, but rather identification with a specific form of transgression of the Law, of the Law’s suspension (in psychoanalytic terms, with a specific forms of enjoyment).
Let us return to those small-town white communities in the American South of the 1920s, where the reign of the official, public Law is accompanied by its shadowy double, the nightly terror of Ku Klux Klan, with its lynchings of the powerless blacks: a (white) man is easily forgiven minor infractions of the Law, especially when they can be justified by a ‘code of honour’; the community still recognizes him as ‘one of us’. Yet he will be effectively excommunicated, perceived as ‘not one of us’, the moment he disowns the specific form of transgression that pertains to this community – say, the moment he refuses to partake in the ritual lynchings by the Klan, or even reports them to the Law (which, of course, does not want to hear about them, since they exemplify its own hidden underside). The Nazi community relied on the same solidarity-in-guilt induced by participation in a common transgression: it ostracized those who were not ready to take on the dark side of the idyllic Volksgemeinschaft: the night pogroms, the beatings of political opponents – in short, all that ‘everybody knew, yet did not want to speak about aloud’.
the superego is the law ‘run amok’ in so far as it prohibits what it formally permits.
(…) The hero is immoral, yet ethical – that is to say, he violates (or rather, suspends the validity of) existing explicit moral norms in the name of a higher ethics of life, historical Necessity, and so on, whereas superego designates the very opposite of othe hero, an unethical moral Law, a Law in which an obscene enjoyment sticks to obedience to the moral norms (say, a severe teacher who torments his pupils for the sake of their own good, and is not ready to asknowledge his own sadistic investment in this torment).
This, however, in no way entails that, in the ethical domain, there is no way to avoid the tension between Law and superego. Lacan’s maxim of the ethics of psychoanalysis (‘not to compromise one’s desire’) is not to be confounded with the pressure of the superego. That is to say, in a first approach it may seem that the maxim ‘Do not give up your desire!’ coincides with the superego command ‘Enjoy!’ – do we not compromise our desire precisely by renouncing enjoyment? Is it not a fundamental thesis of Freud, a kind of Freudian commonplace, that the superego forms the basic, ‘primitive’ kernel of the ethical agency? Lacan goes against these commonplaces: between the ethics of desire and the superego, he posits a relationship of radical exclusion. That is to say, Lacan takes seriously and literally the Freudian paradox of the superego – that is, the vicious cycle the characterizes the superego: the more we submit ourselves to the superego imperative, the greater its pressure, the more we feel guilty. According to Lacan, this ‘feeling of guilt’ is not a self-deception to be dispelled in the course of the psychoanalytic cure – we really are guilty: superego draws the energy of the pressure it exerts upon the subject from the fact that the subject was not faithful to his desire, that he gave it up. Our sacrificing to the superego, our paying tribute to it, only corroborates our guilt. For that reason our debt to the superego is unredeemable: the more we pay it off, the more we owe. Superego is like the extortioner slowly bleeding us to death – the more he gets, the stronger his hold on us.
The exemplary case of this paradox of the superego is, of course, the literary work of Franz Kafka: the so-called ‘irrational guilt’ of the Kafkaesque hero bears witness to the fact that, somewhere, he compromised his desire. In order to avoid commonplaces, however, let us rather refer to Choderlos de Laclos’s Les liaisons dangereuses: when Valmont offers the Marquise de Montreuil his famous ‘c’est pas ma faute’, ‘it’s beyond my control’, as the excuse for his falling in love with the Presidente de Tourvel, he thereby confirms that he ‘compromised his desire’ and yielded to a pathological passion – that is, he is guilty. In order to redeem himself in the eyes of the Marquise, he then proceeds to sacrifice the Presidente, rebuffing her with the same words (‘c’est pas ma faute’ if I no longer love you, since it’s beyond my control). This sacrifice, however, in no way enables him to get rid of his guilt – quite the contrary, his guilt is redoubled; he betrays the Presidente without reducing his guilt in the slightest in the eyes of the Marquise. Therein consists the vicious cycle into which we are drawn once we ‘give up our desire’: there is no simple way back, since the more we endeavour to exculpate ourselves by sacrificing the pathological object which induced us to betray our desire, the greater is our guilt.
Lacanian ethics thus involves the radical disjunction between duty and giving consideration to the Good. This is why Lacan refers to Kant, to the Kantian gesture of excluding the Good as the motivation of an ethical act: Lacan insists that the most dangerous form of betrayal is not a direct yielding to our ‘pathological’ impulses but, rather, a reference to some kind of Good, as when I shirk my duty with the excuse that I might thereby impair the Good (my own or common) – the moment I invoke ‘circumstances’ or ‘unfavourable consequences’ as an excuse, I am on my way to perdition. Reasons on account of which I compromise my desire can be very convincing and well-founded, even honourable; I can invoke anything, up to and including ecological damage. The artifice of looking for excuses is boundless; it may well be ‘true’ that the well-being of my fellow-men is jeopardized by my act, but the abyss that separates ethics from the consideration of the Good none the less remains insurmountable. Desire and Kantian ethical rigour coincide here in their disregard for the ‘demands of reality’: neither of them acknowledges the excuse of circumstances or unfavourable consequences, which is why Lacan ultimately identifies them (‘the moral law, looked at more closely, is simply desire in its pure state’).
Freud’s infamous assertion that women are without superego – or, at least, that a woman’s superego is weaker than a man’s – appears, therefore, in an entirely new light: women’s lack of superego bears witness to their ethics. Women don’t need a superego, since they have no guilt on which the superego can parasitize – since, that is, they are far less prone to compromise their desire. It is by no means accidental that Lacan evokes as the exemplary case of a pure ethical attitude Antigone, a woman who ‘didn’t give up’: already, at a pre-theoretical intuitive level, it is clear that she does not do as she does because of superego pressure – superego has no business here. Antigone is not guilty, although she does not trouble herself at all about the Good of the community, about the possible catastrophic consequences of her act. Herein resides the link between the male superego and the fact that in man the sense of the Good of the community is expressed far more than it is in woman: the ‘Good of the community’ is the standard excuse for compromising our desire. Superego is the revenge that capitalizes upon our guilt – that is to say, the price we pay for the guilt we contract by betraying our desire in the name of the Good.
This ethics of persisting in one’s desire irrespective of the common Good inevitably gives rise to anxiety: is not such a radical attitude the preserve of a few ‘heroes’, while we ordinary people also have a right to survive? Consequently, do we not also need an ‘ordinary’ ethics of ‘common Good’ and distributive justice that would meet the requirements of the majority, despicable as it may appear in the eyes of the suicidal heroic ethics advocated by Lacan? The fear of this ‘excessive’ character of the Lacanian ethics of desire (…) can be detected even in Kant who, according to Lacan, was the first to formulate an ethics of desire that ignores pathological considerations: is not the restraint imposed by ‘What if everyone were to do the same as me?’ the elementary form of the way we give up our desire? Renounce your desire, since it is not universalizable!
Slavoj Žižek, The Metastases of Enjoyment, pp. 54-68.
What is it?
Franz Kafka’s well-known novel of the trial of Jozef K. by an organisation he doesn’t know, for a crime he is not aware of, in a stage adaptation by Louise Fox. Directed by Matthew Lutton, the next wunderkind on the block: Lutton has directed a number of things in Perth, as the artistic director of his company, ThinIce, as a mainstay in the Perth Festival, has been regularly working in Sydney (including directing The Duel, based on Dostoyevsky, and The Mystery of the Genesis for STC in 2009), but has so far worked in Melbourne only once, in 2008, when he directed Tartuffe for the Malthouse, as a last-minute replacement for Michael Kantor. By and large, The Trial is his Melbourne debut.
Is it good?
Yes, very much so. I am tempted to call it a very Sydney kind of quality, but I won’t, lest it puts Melburnians off. It’s an exuberant, highly energetic production, which marries a great text (Fox’s adaptation is snappy, clear and often hilarious, without any lapses into unwarranted, un-Kafkan lyricism) with a great young team. The cast is excellent: Ewen Leslie’s abilities are not particularly stretched by the demands of his character, but Hamish Michael, Rita Kalnejais and in particular Belinda McClory (whom we don’t see in Melbourne often enough!) clearly revel in the chance to play a large number of roles, often within the same scene. It’s a very playful production, one that has more ideas than form or concept, but most of the time it’s an absolute joy to behold. In Melbourne, we often get bogged down in a terrible literal sourness: we like to condemn shows on ‘unevenness’, which often means an excess of ideas. Sydney is more forgiving of that, and also less interested in all those evenly boring productions that Melbourne abounds with at certain times of the year. I do recommend it, highly.
What does it do?
It amps Kafka up into a whirlwind of sexed-up, clamouring absurdity. Much of this effect is achieved through reduction: the novel is condensed into an intervalless 2-hour, single-set, rotating-box farce of a sort, in which seven actors embody a swirling panoply of characters. The uncertain paranoia of The Trial is given a perfect theatrical embodiment: recycling sets and actors is enough of a theatrical convention that the constant repetition of place and person strikes the audience as eerie and claustrophobic, but also, somehow, understandable. As the set is repeatedly stripped of stage props to reveal only more (bare-backed) set, it embodies without comment a conspiracy theory that both is and isn’t correct. After all, seeing through the illusion of reason rarely provides any consolation to Kafka’s characters.
More theoretically, please.
At times, this production is more hysterical than tragicomic, which leads me to believe that Lutton is not as familiar with his source material as one would wish. Franz Kafka’s world, immensely coherent across his oeuvre, is a world of mad bureaucracies. Long before Max Weber defined bureaucracy in sociology, Kafka’s protagonists were trapped in worlds run by nameless and faceless organisations, in which the person delivering the death verdict or the execution was merely following the orders of some distant superior, worlds in which the cogs turned seemingly by themselves, with no decision-making ever taking place, and no way to interfere.
A bank clerk in the Austria-Hungary, one of the earliest bureaucratised empires, Kafka knew the logic of this system well: in a bureaucracy, there is no discretionary power, no personal responsibility, and no accountability. While his work was often understood as a premonition of the industrialised execution of Jews in the Third Reich, and of the Soviet terror, it is just as applicable as an allegory of those capitalist sagas in which one wrestles with customer service, welfare agencies, call centres in India, or tries to extract personal responsibility from a corporation after an industrial catastrophe.
Bureaucracy is the basic form in which production takes place today – of goods, services, and governance. Kafka’s genius was in recognising and giving a literary life to the moral catastrophe that this state of affairs is. If nobody can be held responsible for anything, not even for violence, then tragedy cannot exist, because tragedy hinges on personal choice. What remains is a sort of tragicomedy, only partially legible to its protagonists: things happen that are sometimes terrible, sometimes fortunate, often simply funny. The difference between opaque and clear vanishes: to see through the conspiracy of the trial is no more meaningful than seeing through the conspiracy of the outsourced call centre: the reason why it exists is not the reason why it makes us suffer. The ultimate revelation is as banal as the exposed plywood set. We exit the realm of the tragic, and enter the statistic, the merely quantifiable, the heartlessly rational.
Kafka’s works are often phantasmagoric in a way which is deeply un-lyrical: his sentences are short, his words simple, his eye unsentimental. Yet by the end of this production, Jozef K. is sobbing hysterically, his death accompanied by a violent stage rotation and deeply distressed music, which leads me to believe that this crucial quality of Kafka’s work was completely missed by Lutton. In the end of the novel, remember, Jozef K. not only accepts his execution, but is embarrassed for not having the strength to perform his own execution. The very last sentence of the novel reads: “It was as if the shame of it would outlive him.” Why is this important? Because the former solution is easy; the latter more difficult. It is gratifying and safe to read the gulag in The Trial – a prophesy of evils we recognise as such, committed by people other than us, whom history has already condemned.
Kundera has repeatedly argued that Jozef K., right from the beginning of the novel, acts like a guilty man – which is to say, a man who internalises his accusation. To stage him as a heroic rebel is to miss the Kafkan subtlety altogether: Jozef K. is not so much a brave fighter for justice, as one who goes through the motions, deeply unsure of his own innocence when faced with the external consensus. This is the universal condition of the man before the Law; only action heroes and psychotics can disregard the Law completely (and there may be a psychotic lurking inside every action hero, if we are to trust Alan Moore). Jozef K is a man who believes in the world that executes him. This is the complication that makes Kafka a great writer. (It also makes me wonder how much more exciting Leslie’s performance could have been, had he had the freedom to play a morally torn man, rather than just a romantic misfit of sorts.)
However, Lutton abundantly makes up for this slightness of reading by the sheer exuberance of this production. It may be a work built on sheer instinct, but Lutton’s instincts are often spot on. Hyperbolic exaggeration (somewhat naively) restores some of the crucial elements often forgotten in the conventional interpretations of Kafka. For example, artist Titorelli’s CHECK young admirers, played by the entire male and female cast, are literally crawling into his studio through every door on stage, scratching the walls and cat-calling. This gesture befits the material perfectly: many gloomy interpreters of Kafka completely fail to notice the humour permeating his work, humour part-Jewish and part-Czech, absurd (but not clownish), black (but not bleak), and not so much self-deprecating as self-deriding. Lutton’s Trial has plenty of humour, of the best kind. The production is also brimming with a ridiculous eroticism: there are whippings and undergarments and sexy nurses everywhere. The usual reduction of Kafka to an ascetic priest-like creature is completely absent.
However, this re-interpretation opens up questions it doesn’t answer. It faithfully keeps the priest’s story of a man wishing to gain entry to the law (known as the ‘Before the Law’ parable, and the single most famous part of The Trial). However, not only does the parable sit awkwardly within the performance, suddenly shifting the register from grotesquely humorous to mystically simple. It also sits awkwardly within the novel itself. Why? Because it isn’t necessarily meant to be there. Max Brod, Kafka’s friend who posthumously compiled The Trial from the fragments of Kafka’s writings, was the person who made that decision. Brod, while a dear friend, was also the most famous misinterpreter of Franz Kafka, assigning him the status of saint, infamously purging his biography of evidence of brothel-attendance, and providing us with the first accounts of Franz as a spiritual, almost religious writer (Walter Benjamin would dismiss Brod’s interpretation as kitsch). “Before the Law” was the only part of The Trial to be published during Kafka’s life, as a separate short story. As such, it is a perfect little gem of brutal absurdism. As a penultimate chapter to a complex novel, it swings its overall tone strongly, perhaps too strongly, towards the mystic. It’s often taken to contain the essence of The Trial, but that probably has a lot to do with its crisp, succint tightness – as befits a short story. Lutton’s production, which greatly avoids the perfunctory mysticism, clearly doesn’t do it consciously enough to recognise these contradictions. (I will point out here that Cameron Woodhead, in his review in The Age, very predictably fails to understand the complexity of the issue, bemoaning the farce and praising the parable. As if seriousness, as opposed to humour, denotes Art.)
This lack of understanding is enough to bar The Trial from being called a masterpiece. It’s a youthful work, its flaws gaping open. However, as a young director’s work, it is among the best and most promising Melbourne has seen in a while. It shows a remarkable new talent, and a great theatrical instinct, in Matthew Lutton. It is also an absolute joy to attend: funny, crafty, and almost impeccably executed. Most importantly, as Alison Croggon picked up, there is an honest truth in this project, which alone makes it worth seeing. With no holding back, the artistic team has clearly catapulted itself right in the centre of a text and a problematic they may not quite have a grip on, but were determined to tackle with all their capacity. This refusal to play it safe is too rarely seen to be missed.
The Trial. Adapted by Louise Fox from the novel by Franz Kafka, directed by Matthew Lutton. Set designer Claude Marcos, costume design by Alice Babidge, lighting design by Paul Jackson, composer Ash Gibson Greig, sound design by Kelly Ryall. With John Gaden, Peter Houghton, Rita Kalnejais, Ewen Leslie, Belinda McClory, Hamish Michael and Igor Sas. Malthouse Theatre, Sydney Theatre Company. Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, until September 4. Sydney Theatre Company, September 9 – October 16.