Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Nearly: a confession

So, a kind of confession. The kind a person might make on reaching what used to be called the ‘middle age’, when you’ve reached a point in professional life, a foothold; more than that, when you’ve reached solid ground, something near to achievement. Nearly.

Antonio Salieri is the patron saint of mediocrity; or at least, Peter Shaffer’s Salieri, I mean. In Amadeus, Salieri is a composer at the court of the Emperor of Austria whose gifts of devotion and hard work are superseded by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s carelessly curated genius, a creative gift from God that Mozart knows not how to pursue properly. Mozart is excessive: scatological, childlike, wanton. Salieri is the consummate courtier.

There are two brilliant moments of appreciation of Mozart’s music in Milos Forman’s film adaptation of Amadeus (which now exists in theatrical release and ‘Director’s Cut’ forms; much of the tonal difference between them is in the depiction of Salieri, who is much more sympathetic in the original release version). The first is near the beginning of the film, when a priest comes to Salieri’s cell in the Bedlam in which he has been incarcerated after attempting suicide, loudly accusing himself of Mozart’s murder. It is clear that, other than as a person of note, the priest has no idea who Salieri is, nor has any familiarity with his work, even though the priest studied music in Vienna in his youth. Salieri, with increasing discomfort to himself and audience(s), plays two short excerpts from his own work, asking whether the priest recognised the musical phrases. Each is received with a sorrowful expression, and then Salieri plays one last piece: the priest hums along, and declares: ‘that is charming! I did not know you wrote that.’ To which Salieri replies: ‘I didn’t. That was Mozart.’

The second scene occurs when Constanze, Mozart’s wife, approaches Salieri with a view to persuading him help Mozart to some preferment at court. In the play, this is part of Salieri’s plan of vengeance against the God (and his instrument) who seems to tarnish Salieri’s devotion and middling compositional gifts with the ‘ape’-genius; Salieri wishes to seduce Constanze in order to denigrate her and Mozart. She brings a sheaf of draft scores to Salieri; in the original film, this comes as quite a surprise to the Court Composer. The moment of revelation is beautifully played by F Murray Abraham*, and staged according to Shaffer’s guidelines in the play. As Salieri looks over each of the sheets, the music he sees is heard on the soundtrack, so that we may, even if at one remove, experience part of the musical rapture that overtakes him. Salieri says (to the audience):

She had said that these were his original scores. First and only drafts of music. Yet they looked like fair copies. They showed no corrections of any kind. [...] It was puzzling – then suddenly alarming. What was evident was that Mozart was simply transcribing music [...] completely finished in his head. And finished as most music is never finished. [...] Displace one note and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase and the structure would fall. [...] I was staring through the cage of those meticulous ink strokes at an Absolute Beauty!

The music ceases as Salieri, transported, drops the sheaf of papers to the floor. Amadeus is full of confusions of audience(s): implied, on-stage (like the priest), extra-textual (like us). The most fundamental confusion is in the mind and soul of Salieri himself. It is his curse that he wishes to be the instrument of a divine muse, the vessel of such an Absolute Beauty, but remains the only man in Vienna who can truly appreciate Mozart’s gifts. Salieri yearns to transmit the truth of divinely-inspired beauty in music, but finds that his gift is to receive those transmissions fully, a plenitude that he refuses.

For, what an understanding of his role as receiver entails is a sense of his own mediocrity. In characterizing his own position at court, Salieri declares ‘yes, we were servants. But we were learned servants! And we used our learning to celebrate men’s average lives! [...] We took unremarkable men [...] and sacramentalized their mediocrity’. Salieri’s curse is to understand mediocrity and to exemplify it: in his own lifetime, he is forgotten. But he is so close to achieving what he seeks: he is Court Composer and then Kapellmeister, he writes 40 operas, he becomes ‘the most famous composer in Europe’ for a time. How is this ‘mediocrity’? Because for Salieiri, mediocrity is about proximity: to genius, to the divine, to full achievement. So close as to be touched, but not grasped. To be felt, even for a moment, but not inhabited.

Salieri is the proto-typical post-Romantic subject. He knows what genius is; he recognises it when he sees its creations; but he is not possessed of genius himself. Salieri is, in effect, the subject as writer-critic, who worships and hates that which he is not: genius. From Byron to hackers, from Dostoevsky to Burroughs to cyberpunk, from Swinburne to Woolf to Chet Baker to Roy Baty, the genius-as-outsider, whose inspiration/obsession takes him or her beyond the world of ‘ordinary’ lives, into madness or addiction or criminality or transgression or suicide, haunts the artistic life of Europe and North America.  In fact, it haunts the imagination of everyone who dreams of doing something, of writing, of painting, of being a rock star, games designer, Michelin chef, athlete. Kurt Vonnegut, in Timequake, writes this:

‘of native talent itself I say in speeches: “If you go to a big city, and a university is a big city, you are bound to run into Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Stay Home, stay home.”’
To put it another way: No matter what a young person think he or she is really hot stuff at doing, he or she is sooner or later going to run into somebody in the same field who will cut him a new asshole, so to speak.

Of course, Vonnegut doesn’t mean ‘stay home’; he means that if you go out into the world, as you should, be prepared to experience the involuntary addition of an auxiliary anus to your person.

Inspired by images in a dream, some years ago I sketched out a story. (I never wrote it up in full.) In this story, which took place in a typical faux-medieval fantasy world, the narrator, Gaspard, is falsely accused of the murder of the King, and writes his testament, his confession, from the condemned cell. He tells of growing up in the Palace, the son of the old King’s first minister. Gaspard and the young Prince are of an age; they become playmates, and friends. They look alike (and would be thought twins, were not the thought expressed enough for the speaker to be skinned alive), but the narrator knows that there is an irreparable difference. When alarms sound, palace guards arrive to bear away the young Prince; Gaspard is left in the care of a nurse or handmaiden, to be ‘protected’ as best she can manage. The friends grow up together, and increasingly apart, the Prince to be trained in the ways of Kingship, Gaspard to replace his own father, in counsel, espionage, and administration.

Eventually, the Prince becomes King, and Gaspard becomes Minister. The King grows increasingly corrupt, as does the Court. Good men are banished, and thieves promoted. Powerful lords gather in opposition. One night, after sexual congress with a lady-in-waiting in a darkened corridor, Gaspard enters the throne room to find the King hanging by the neck. He panics, hides, sees the shadow of the dangling man upon the floor. He flees the room, and returns to his own chambers, only to suffer an attack of conscience. A naturally timid man, he returns to the throne room to find it empty. Some hours later, guards knock upon his door and inform him that the King has been murdered in his bed, his throat almost sawn through; Gaspard sees to the preparation of the body for burial.

Of course, there is a plot, and Gaspard the patsy, the fall-guy, is framed for the murder. He could tell what he saw, that the King had been hanged and the body decapitated to obscure the rope-burns, indicting the estranged Lords who have now seized power; but he knows that the King, his sometime-twin, was a bad ruler, and the Lords acted in what they presumed to be the best interests of the state, even if these coincided with self-interest. As regicide, Gaspard also finally throws off his role as servant, as the lesser ‘twin’, and with an assumption of guilt, takes the sins of the King and the state into himself, offering his countrymen a new beginning. Amongst this apocalypticism, though, at the end of the narrative, Gaspard signs off his confession with the phrase: ‘This is the last testament of Gaspard the Regicide (my will is not my own)’. Gaspard potentially undoes his own assumption.
I hadn’t read or seen Amadeus when I dreamed those images, but the patterning is distinct. Salieri and Gaspard are ‘nearly men’, successful people who live their lives close to genius or power, whose work is in many senses perfectly good and admirable, but who will always judge themselves by a yardstick they will never attain.
And so, a kind of confession.
The kind a person might make on reaching what used to be called the ‘middle age’, when you’ve reached a point in professional life, a foothold; more than that, when you’ve reached solid ground, something near to achievement. Somehow, though, that breakthrough, and that recognition, remains frustratingly out of reach. You can touch it, but not grasp it. In a professional world which increasingly encourages you to think of your own work in relation to others, measured by external yardsticks, in terms of competition and promotion rather than collegiality or co-operation (you co-operate to compete more effectively), which encourages a spirit inimical to generosity and kindness because the success of a friend or colleague cuts you a new asshole, I can say this: Salieri, c’est moi.
I’m not an obsessive, though. I’m competent at drawing, painting, playing guitar, writing,academic criticism , though I’m not great at any of those things (my greatest gift might be teaching, which, in contemporary culture, isn't much to boast about). And I’m not obsessive or driven enough to break myself in pursuit of them.
A manifesto, then, for the mediocre, for those who, like me, do their thing, but often wonder why:
  1. Keep on, with kindness;
  2. Failure is inevitable;
  3. You are not a genius, and do not need to be;
  4. 'Contemplating a purported work of art is a social activity. Either you have a rewarding time, or you don’t’ (Vonnegut again, Timequake);
  5. The same is true of making art;
  6. Be happy, but not self-satisfied, with what you create at the time you create it (rather than in retrospect);
  7. Experiment;
  8. Persevere;
  9. As Beckett says, fail better.
  10. Who wants to be a fucked-up genius anyway? 

Tyler Durden, the projected Romantic genius-ideal of Fight Club’s narrator back in the 1990s said: ‘You are not your job. You're not how much money you have in the bank. You're not the car you drive. You're not the contents of your wallet. You're not your fucking khakis. You're the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world’. And at the same time, you are not the food you cook, the words you write, the art you make.

* F Murray Abraham won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Salieri, which remains his best-known film role.


Saturday, 21 September 2013

Star Wars / Star Trek

If it came down to a choice between Star Wars and Star Trek, for me, it’s not much of a contest: for all that I grew up watching Star Trek (TOS) re-runs on terrestrial tv, watched the entirety of the runs of TNG, DS9 and Voyager (Enterprise didn’t do much for me) in the 80s and 90s, and have a deep and abiding fondess for Shatner, I only own a couple of the movies on dvd, and only Star Trek: The Motion Picture is one that I re-watch for pleasure. By comparison, I own all the Star Wars films, have the Clone Wars dvds, Star Wars Lego, and even went to see The Phantom Menace at the cinema twice (the second time on its recent 3D re-release). (That’s dedication.)

However, I recently sat down to watch Star Trek Into Darkness, and while the post 9/11 analogies are a bit pat, the question that is poses about the Federation itself – Scotty says to Kirk at one point, when questioning the arrival of advanced missiles aboard the Enterprise, ‘I thought we were meant to be explorers’ – is a particularly interesting one.  Because the film asks: what kind of organisation is this? What are its aims, its ethics? Central to this is the Prime Directive, the ‘non-interference’ clause that Kirk violates repeatedly (and once again at the beginning of Into Darkness) in the name of a ‘higher’ ethics, whether that is to save a friend (‘the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many’) or in the service of a kind of liberation-theology, removing a developing people from an oppressive yoke. The ‘Prime Directive’ proposes the Federation as a liberal, post-Imperial, non- or anti-hegemonic force, ‘seeking out new worlds, new civilizations’ to join the ‘family’ (a crucial word in Into Darkness, it should be emphasised), but refusing to expose themselves to the sight of developing species who might, as do the denizens of the world at the beginning of Into Darkness, turn the alien visitors into an extra-terrestrial cargo cult. This is an ethical alibi, of course, allowing Kirk and crew to zoom around the galaxy doing all manner of things – including waging war against Klingons or Romulans – without worrying unduly about the moral or material cost of happy adventuring.  Except in dilithium crystals, of course.

That the Prime Directive is central to the Star Trek universe indicates, I think, that for all the purchase Star Wars has on my own imagination, it is Star Trek that is the most interestingly and politically striated text. If the Federation is a projection of NASA, the ghosts that haunt the vaunted memory of Apollo – von Braun and the V-2s, the Shuttle’s secret military missions – also haunt the Federation. The Enterprise embarks on a ‘5 year mission’ to explore, but its capabilities are offensive as well as defensive, and as DS9 in particular explored, the Federation is also a military entity. Into Darkness brings this to the fore, although it really re-scripts the end-of-the-Cold War narrative of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, with Peter Weller’s war-monger General the counterpart of Christopher Plummer’s bellicose Klingon general, as well as explicitly re-writing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. One of the most revealing things about Star Trek VI is Kirk’s, and the crew’s, growing awareness that they themselves are Cold Warriors who have outlived their time, and in particular Kirk’s unreconstructed belligerence towards all things Klingon (‘you Klingon bastard, you killed my son!) has no place in the future coming-together of Klingon Empire and Federation that is key to TNG.

I think Star Trek’s ultimate psychological orientation is outward, not inward; what slash fiction has done since the 1970s is to create that psycho-sexual hinterland which allows Kirk’s question in Into Darkness – ‘why did I go back for you?’ – to go unanswered. (Spock’s stilted ‘because you are my friend’ seems somewhat lame in this scene; the film goes to intriguing lengths – Kirk discovered in bed with two be-tailed young women, the reverse shot of Carol Marcus in her underwear, not p-o-v because it is shot from below so her whole body is on display – to emphasise Kirk’s heterosexuality, when it is the homosocial – the relationship to Pike and to Spock, and even to Khan – that is the true centre of the film’s relationships.) By comparison, I think the basic orientation of Star Wars is inward; that is why the prequel trilogy’s handling of politics is so inept. Star Wars isn’t about politics; it’s about belief.

I read the crucial act in Star Wars as the moment when Luke, beginning his final run against the Death Star, turns off the targeting computer. Of course, he has heard dear old Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan say to him ‘Use the force, Luke’, but the act of turning off the computer is a turning away from material reality towards the numinous that lies within.

That’s why all the talk of midi-chlorians in The Phantom Menace is so cack-handed and unnecessary: the crucial split in Star Wars is always between the material and the spiritual, between Reason and Power (the Empire) and Faith (the Jedi/ the Force). What The Clone Wars series does a much better job of showing is that, like Kirk, the Jedi cease being ‘Knights’ but become soldiers, but don’t realise it. They become too immersed in the material world and lose their ethical compass thereby. (The prequel films handle this so badly that we, the audience, don’t realise it either.) Han Solo, who Leia sneers at when demanding his material reward, is so antithetical to the numinous that when delivering the line ‘May the Force Be With You’ to Luke, Harrison Ford clearly has no sense how to do it: is Solo trying to be sincere, to boost Luke’s moral, or is he taking the piss? Considering the rest of the film, you have to suspect the latter, but the moment cannot play like that, even though Hammill does a much better job of giving a withering silent stare in the reaction-shot, clearly believing that Solo is being sardonic. When Solo in the Millennium Falcon turns up at the Death Star, it’s in the cause of friendship, rather than because he believes: in the two sequels, he is a freedom fighter, not a Jedi-manqué. Solo is much closer to the two-fisted ethos of Kirk than anyone else in Star Wars, partly because he does not have the spiritual interiority demanded of the Jedi.

Where the crucial prohibition in Star Trek is the Prime Directive, the taboo that is the (somewhat occluded) problem in Star Wars, and in particular the prequels and the Clone Wars series, is the relationship between Master and Padawan. When Qui-Gon Jinn tells the young Anakin, about to face death in the pod-race, that he should ‘trust his feelings’ (a replay of Obi-Wan’s posthumous words to Luke in his X-Wing), my reaction is: hang on, aren’t the Jedi all about repressing one’s feelings? How can they, on one hand, profess that the Jedi must put aside attachments and treat all alike, while the source of their power, the Force, is accessed non-cognitively, through (yes) one’s feelings?

The prequel trilogy and partly the Clone Wars tries to posit Anakin’s later turn to the ‘dark side’ as a consequence of his inability to let go of his feelings, the negative emotions that accompany the loss of his mother and the love for (and secret marriage to) Padme. But this all feels unsufficiently motivated. Yes, he’s breaking the taboo of attachment, but it’s a perfectly reasonable romance (unreasonably/ execrably narrated in Attack of the Clones), and Anakin should be able to compartmentalise his life enough without being consumed by the Dark Side, to say to Obi-Wan (as he does in Revenge of the Sith) that the Jedi are ‘evil’. This doesn’t make much sense. Evil? How so?

I think the power of the ‘dark feelings’ that Anakin has access to are only really understandable in terms of the taboo on attachment that is articulated increasingly explicitly in the Clone Wars episodes. What this taboo is particularly meant to prohibit is, I think, sexual relations between Master and Padawan. (Where Star Trek is haunted by war, Star Wars is haunted by pederasty.) The relationship between Anakin, as Master, and Ahsoka Tano, as Padawan, is at the centre of many of the key episodes in The Clone Wars, and Ahsoka muses out loud about it, particularly to fellow Padawan Barriss Ofee (who later betrays her, having become disillusioned with the militaristic policies of the republic and the Jedi). In the great game of ‘what if?’, what if the mother of Anakin’s children were not Padme (which beside the difference in age – downplayed by the casting of Natalie Portman – is unproblematic) but Ahsoka, or someone like her (do a Google search of images for Ahsoka to see how many sexualised versions there are); not a Princess, but a Padawan?

The last time we watched Clone Wars, Isobel asked me ‘Why can’t the Jedis get married?’, a perfectly reasonable question; to which I would add the rider, ‘to each other’. There is, of course, a large amount of fan fiction which posits just this relationship, but unlike Star Trek Into Darkness (where I feel there are clear nods to Kirk/Spock), even the welcome revisions of The Clone Wars aren’t able to take Star Wars into that dark a direction.

It would be easier to understand Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side if he, like Barriss Ofee, had become a revolutionary, disgusted not only by the Jedi’s militaristic hypocrisy, but by the ‘evil’ of the taboo on attachment, a repression that leads to secrecy or abuse. Pulling down the Temple would seem a necessary act to one whose love for another could not be contained by the homosocial codes and rituals of the Jedi order, but becomes literally perverted, made sinful, taboo, by them.

Perhaps the sense is that, if Jedi husband and wife, or partners, were to fight alongside each other, the needs of the one might outweigh the needs of the many; rather than doing their duty and protecting the community (or social order), the Jedi might decide to put each other first. In Star Trek II and III, the relationship between individual and group, and the responsibilities of each to the other, is right at the heart of the narrative, and this is carried over to Into Darkness, with its post 9/11 inflections of Kirk’s ‘heroic’ and individualistic adventurism, that must be tempered by his assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the group. In Star Wars, this relationship is never made clear, because it is always articulated in terms of an individual moral choice between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ courses of action.  

In Star Wars’ terms, the Federation in Star Trek is an Empire that believes itself to be a Republic, peopled by soldiers who think of themselves as explorers. Star Wars separates out good and evil, right and wrong because its universe is fundamentally moral in conception; Star Trek’s Federation is open to re-scripting in Into Darkness because it, like the United States that it figures and ideologically reproduces, is an admixture of both.