Saturday, July 25, 2020

America In Search Of Repression

Luigi Pirandello in 1932

I just want to go away and look at people and think.* 

- I was talking with, call him my friend, the construction site guard, and something interesting came up. Should I tell you about it?
- Why do you hesitate to call him your friend?
- We only talk while he is working.
- Why do you talk to him then?
- To keep in practice.
- You don't have anyone else to talk to?
- No.
- If he's the only one something must be special about him.
- Maybe. Twenty-three now, he went through a period of about five years where, in his words, he partied every night at the house of his friend, much older than himself, a drug dealer.
- Party, meaning drugs and alcohol.
- Yes. A wide variety of each. He also had a girlfriend during this period, again much older than himself. To make a long story short, he discovered his girlfriend was keeping up internet correspondences with other guys, broke it off with her, and then, at a bar one night his friend the drug dealer deliberately provoked a group of "ghetto blacks", as he put it, who proceeded to beat him up. The guard took to his heels, a betrayal the drug dealer felt to be inexcusable.
- The guard concluded his girl wasn't his friend, his friend concluded he wasn't his friend, and you never thought of him as your friend. Is that the story?
- No. I'd asked his opinion why he thought people in this country, and in many countries all over the world, so quickly, without challenge, even carelessly accepted government repression: closing public places, businesses, schools, locking up people in their houses.
- What did he answer?
- We're all absorbed in our private lives. Know what I'd been doing that afternoon? I asked him. Researching how ordinary people have in the recent past responded to the build up leading into totalitarianism. I found two articles proposing the same explanation: an Argentinian wrote that the county's authoritarian dictatorship was accepted as a relief from uncertainty. An historian of the Nazi period came up with the identical explanation.
- What did the guard say?
- He asked me what I thought. The situation we're in, I answered, didn't feel that way to me. It was more like the life I was living had been interrupted because its author had disappeared. Even before the words had left my lips I knew this wasn't my own idea. Then I remembered: Pirandello's 1921 play Six Characters In Search Of An Author. Pirandello described his composition of the play like this:
"Why not," I said to myself, "present this highly strange fact of an author who refuses to let some of his characters live, though they have been born in his fantasy, and the fact that these characters, having by now life in their veins, do not resign themselves to remaining excluded from the world of art? They are detached from me; live on their own; have acquired voice and movement; have by themselves -- in this struggle for existence that they have had to wage with me -- become dramatic characters, characters that can move and talk on their own initiative; already see themselves as such; have learned to defend themselves against me; will even know how to defend themselves against others. And so let them go where dramatic characters do go to have life: on a stage. And let us see what will happen."
- People had their roles to play and looked with relief at the clear stage directions repression provides for playing them.
- Yes. Do you see the difference between Pirandello's staging of personal role in its relation to public life and acceptance of repression in Argentina and Germany?
- Can't say I do. What's the difference?
- Pirandello's six characters in search of an author wander onto a stage where a director is beginning rehearsal of a play with his troop of actors. One of the six characters, the Father, explains his predicament to the director: he, the director, thinks his character has reality, but if he is honest with himself he will admit that he is always changing, and not living up to the roles he plays. Whereas he, The Father, is one thing all the time, the part written for him, but that part is an illusion, something made up by the author; he requires, if he is to experience any kind of ease, the reality of playing out the part on stage with the other five characters. Do you see?
- Not yet.
- There is progress in two directions here. The director is said to be in his own life and in his work putting changeable character into fixed form, while the actors, who already have fixed character, see that is mere words and ideas, they want their character realized in action.
- When the theater director tries to clarify himself to himself by acting in a role, he's really trying to. When the six characters in search of an author invades his theater and convince him to be their author and put them in action on his stage, they still are not real. They are performing a scenario, acting out fiction. Is that what you mean?
- Yes. I said to the guard, Look to your experience, discovering your girlfriend wasn't living up to the role, that you yourself were't considered by your drug dealer friend to be his friend. You want, I think, to forget about roles, our own or played, want friendship to be real.** The approaching government repression doesn't promise to do anything like that, only to make unreality more convincing and permanent.

Further Reading:
Eve In The Garden Of Eden
* Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio.
 ** Man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world - and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. (Jean-Paul Sartre, 'Existentialism is a Humanism', 1946.)