The following text is Michael Polignano’s transcription of Jonathan Bowden’s lecture “Western Civilization: A Bullet Through Steel,” given in London on November 5, 2011, at the third meeting of the IONA group, which stands for Isles of the North Atlantic. The audio was first made public on Tomislav Sunic’s The Sunic Journal, December 13, 2011. We wish to thank Tom Sunic and IONA’s organizers.
The new, more descriptive title is my own invention. The theme of the meeting was Western Civilization, and I believe that Jonathan chose the title before he gave the speech. Since Jonathan spoke extemporaneously, it should come as no surprise that the content bears scant connection to his title.
Several unintelligible bits are marked as such. If you can understand them, or if you have corrections, please enter them below as comments.
Being asked to speak about European Civilization is like being asked to throw an enormous spool of string into the future, and to try and grasp it as it goes away from you.
What do you talk about? Do you talk about the art? Do you talk about the architecture? Do you talk about the science? Do you talk about the history of various nation-states on the European continent? Do you talk about what white people have achieved when they’ve gone abroad into the other continents of the world?
Do you talk about politics in a more narrow way? Or do talk about metapolitics, in other words, the ideas, the philosophy, the culture and history as they impact upon a high level of consciousness and as these gradually feed down into lower-level, more intermediate, more street-political sorts of formulations?
What I’ve decided to do is be optimistic, in relation to some of the pessimism that we’ve heard from various speakers this afternoon. And to look at what European culture and civilization has achieved.
Now, it’s such a broad canvas that I’m going to look at two works, that are tragic works. One is a tragedy by Aeschylus called Agamemnon, and another is a tragedy by Shakespeare called King Lear. And the reason I’ve picked these out, is because during the course of the 20th century there have been various travesties of these tragedies produced by the Left. I think in particular of Steven Berkoff’s version of Agamemnon, and I think in particular of the Marxist playwright Edward Bond’s version of King Lear, which was called Lear.
Those who know Lear will remember that it involves a blinding scene when Gloucester is blinded by Cornwall, in the middle of the play, in Act III, I believe. But in order to mechanize this in a more materialistic way, Edward Bond has a machine: a machine that removes eyeballs, as a complaint against capitalist violence and against violence per se.
Just to fill in a little bit of a paraphrase here, Bond is a Marxist playwright. Marxist playwrights took over the British stage and British theater in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s; particularly influenced by Brecht’s idea of epic theater. Bond produced a Left-wing version of Lear, in which Lear is a mad king who of course gives his territory away to scheming sons, in this case, scheming daughters in two of the cases in Shakespeare’s drama.
Lear suffers terribly for this at different levels, and is brought to a form of realization as to his own folly, the nature of kingship, and many moral causative factors about life, by virtue of the suffering that’s imposed upon him because of his primordial mistake. When you have a kingdom, you never divide it, because you are inviting civil war into your own self, if you’re a monarch. And into your own territory, regardless of anything.
Bond is quite unusual, because Bond is obsessed with the issue of violence. And like a lot of playwrights and filmmakers who are opposed to violence, his entire work consists of violence. All the time. Mayhem, rapes, gouging out of eyes, autopsies on the stage. Mock autopsies, of course, with plenty of blood: watery red liquid and bits of sponge moving about which indicate that they’re sort of fillets of steak drawn from the human body. Because in a sense Bond is a materialist, and things have to be kept at a material level even when he’s dealing with classic drama.
One of the great difficulties of the contemporary Left — certainly, if we go back over the last 30 to 40 years — has been to deal with Stalinism. Why did their project of universal human emancipation end up with Stalinism, in every sense? Why did it fail, catastrophically, even in its own terms? Why did a doctrine of radical human rights where all would love and all would congeal and all would come together in the fastness of our days, end up with the Gulag? This is something that is very, very difficult to answer.
Jean-Paul Sartre, the Left-wing intellectual in France who ended up as a Maoist towards the end of his life, with Simone de Beauvoir. He attempted to answer it in an enormous philosophical work, called The Critique of Dialectical Reason, based on Kant’s volume of several centuries before. Sartre was trying to synthesize existentialism and Marxism as two of the great currents of intellectual thought in the 20th century.
But when he got to Stalinism, and when he got to the attempt to explain the internal dialectic and convolutions of the Soviet Union post-Lenin’s death, and after the defeat of Trotsky and his Left opposition faction in the Party in 1928, he hit a brick wall. He couldn’t go any further. The second volume of The Critique couldn’t be written, because in a sense it’s unanswerable even in the terms of his own theory.
Bond believes that violence is irrational and proceeds from bourgeois man and the context of capitalist competition. But the problem with this, as in the problem with all Marxism, is there is a complete voiding of the biological realities of life.
Man — men and women, in all groups — are 80% inherited, at least, 80% generic, 80% genetic, 80% hereditarian. And the socialized element, the naturalizing, normative element, where we’re reared through parents, the psychology of the relationship that we have with them, where we’re culturalized through education and behaviorism in a society: that’s 20%. And even that is ecology, which is a species of biology. Everybody knows ecology is a subject area within biology.
It’s almost as if the 20% which is actually given by naturalization, that which is nurture rather than nature to use old-fashioned formulations from the 1960s, is actually part and parcel of nature itself. Because what sets us up and primes us to be naturalized as human beings if not nature itself?
So there’s an easy answer to Sartre and to Bond, and to other people of this sort who pretend that there is a deeply complex and invidious set of reasons as to why the Left-wing projects ended up in the way that they did.
It’s now a canard, it’s now a sort of species of rhetoric, that Stalin’s Soviet Union was one of the worst regimes that’s ever existed in human history. I recently re-read Nineteen-Eighty-Four by George Orwell, which is a satire upon the Hampstead Left of his day, and which is a satire against the Soviet Union of its time.
I remember Peter Hain was once asked, what are the glories of Western Civilization? Hain of course, an ex-South African liberal Leftist who was head of the anti-apartheid movement when he came to this country, said that there are no triumphs to Western Civilization. He said that there’s nothing to be proud of at all. All we’ve created is Hitler and Stalin. Don’t forget he’s on the center-Left. So to include Stalin is in a way a [unintelligible] in relation to what could be perceived to be his own side.
The fact that Bond and Sartre — and Hain, who’s a much lesser intellect than either of those — compute the same failure is due to the fact that they irreducibly deny the biological basis to civilization.
Race is culture and culture is race, essentially, put very tendentiously and very crudely and far too crudely than many intellectuals would like, or feel comfortable with. But there is a degree to which everything that exists has to come out of something which existed before it. It has to have a primal root. It has to have a foundation. It has to be “racinated,” to use Simone Weil’s term. It has to come from some egg, or some implantation of self, which gives birth to it.
This is one of the reasons for the pessimism of some of our speakers earlier today, because they don’t see any European high culture being created at the present time. And although there’s an enormous mélange and superfluity of culture being created at the present time, particularly by the state-subsidized and semi-capitalist arts.
One also has to say where is the greatness of a universal cultural Western exhibitionism being created today? Because if you look around you don’t see it. What you do see is deconstruction on the opera stage. Whereby you will have Cosi Fan Tutte, and you’ll have a urinal in the middle of the stage. A urinal, which men empty their bladders into.
Now why is that on the stage? It’s because the people who have put that piece of work on are rebelling against the nature of the piece. They’re at war with the text. This is what they would tell you. They’re attacking the text, even as they’re putting it on. It’s a sort of masochism in a way, because it means even if they’re going forwards they’re pummeling themselves in the face, rhetorically, and watching it in a mirror. And they’ve got a film camera like that one over there, filming them pummeling themselves in the mirror.
Because what they’re frightened of is too much authentication. What they’re frightened of is too much cultural affirmation. Because if things are culturally affirmed in a prior or an identitarian sort of a way they’re conceived to be “too white,” or “too European,” or too “ur-,” or “too fascistic,” or “too dangerously tribal.”
And that’s the reason these things are done. Everything is done for a reason. This society in all of its very complex processes and cultural formations exist for interconnected sets of reasons. Nothing is purely accidental or contingent. Things may come together by virtue of accident and things feeding off each other in a way that one thing will spawn a concept related to itself. But things are rooted in structures of being and belonging which have either been torn up and thrown to the side, or actually subsist and come out of something that’s related prior to their existence.
Why did a Left-wing playwright like Berkoff rewrite Agamemnon in the 1960s and 1970s, which is a play by Aeschylus from Ancient Greece? Why did Bond rewrite King Lear? They did this because they wanted to take some of the primal energy that exists in these amazing cultural forms and use it for their own purposes. They also wanted to have versions of their own of Aeschylus and Shakespeare that they could put on without any filter and without the older texts, which could be perceived as reactionary or unprogressive, or created before the era of progress, created in both cases before the liberal Enlightenment of 200 years ago or more. They wanted a situation where you could refer to a text which is of this present hour and of its present prejudices.
Now Aeschylus’s Agamemnon is the beginning of a series of tragedies called the Oresteia and survives from a Greek competition. Everything in Greece was competitive. Sport was competitive, but art was competitive. When people wrote a tragedy, it would compete with other tragedies, and there would be a vote. And Sophocles and Euripides and Aeschylus, who were the three tragedians that come down to us, won quite a lot of those votes.
This play is about revenge, and it’s about the primal, and it’s about sources of identity. It’s about the aftermath of the Trojan Wars, when Agamemnon comes back from Troy, which they have successfully destroyed after a long siege. He brings with him Cassandra, who may or may not be with child by him. She is the daughter of Priam, the king of Troy, whom he seduced and has kept as a concubine or mistress. He comes back to Argos, the city-state from which he left prior to the Trojan adventure, with the desire to flaunt the fact that Troy has been destroyed, but maybe not to the degree that his wife who’s plotting his murder, Clytemnestra, wishes.
Clytemnestra is one of the greatest characters created in Western art. She is the prototype for Lady Macbeth; she is the prototype for all of the powerful women in Western drama, Western cinema, and Western art, who in a sense often adopted a quasi-male role. This is hinted at very much in the early part of the play where she’s described as a “man-minded woman,” a woman with the mind of a man, a woman who’s a woman on the outside and a man on the inside.
She has taken a lover while Agamemnon has been away because he’s taken a few, close to Troy’s walls, and the lover is Aegisthus. And Aegisthus is a man who has a bias and a prejudice against the house of Atreus, which is Agamemnon’s particular house. And this is because of an act of cannibalism which occurred earlier in the history and trajectory of the house of Atreus, whereby Thyestes served up the sons and daughters of Atreus for his own consumption. And it’s because of this blood on the hands and blood in the mouth, and because of this autophagy, this cannibalism which has occurred, that a curse, a curse has been placed upon this house by Atreus, and every so often this curse has to ventilate itself.
One of the ways in which the curse ventilated itself is Agamemnon putting one of his daughters to death, Iphigenia, which he had with Clytemnestra. He did this because the Greek fleet, by myth, was stalled at Aulis and couldn’t reach the coast where Troy was. Therefore a sacrifice had to be given the gods. And he was told that he had to sacrifice one of his daughters, Iphigenia, in order to do so. Clytemnestra has never forgiven him for this, and is waiting to revenge herself when he returns to Argos.
When he returns to Argos, she makes him walk upon the purple, or upon the red, in certain of the theatrical versions of this play. It’s illicit for a Greek to ape the gods, because the gods are jealous of undue greatness in a human being, which is called hubris, false pride, the pride that portends before a fall. Clytemnestra wants Agamemnon to walk upon the purple, partly because it would justify her later murderous rages and actions against him.
Agamemnon holds out against this, but in the end he walks upon the purple. It’s a great moment, when there’s a series of doors at the back of the stage, and Agamemnon walks upon the purple as Clytemnestra is at the front of the stage with the chorus, until he finally goes into the palace from which he will not emerge, other than as a corpse.
Whether she murders him in the stagecraft with an axe or a sword, is to me textually unclear: there’s evidence for both. Aegisthus gives her a sword, but she also slaughters in the way that you slaughter an animal for sacrifice in accordance with Greek traditions, and this is with an axe. Many of the classical paintings of this play from the 19th century, particularly in English and British art, show Clytemnestra with an axe, either leaning on the axe, or holding the axe over a net. The net is there because these are the curtains, the netting that she actually traps Agamemnon in, prior to giving the blows that kill him in the bath. This is a scenario which has been worked out by Aegisthus, but Aegisthus is regarded as a weakling, because he gets Clytemnestra to do the murder.
One of the greatest scenes in Western drama is when the chorus of Argive elders are talking to the herald, and later then talk to Cassandra as the murder takes place. There’s a great cry and a shout, a sort of “AAAHHHH!” from offstage. And the chorus hears it and wonders what it is, and they’re terrified — the chorus are old men from the city of Argos. And they wonder whether Cassandra’s warnings about the possibility of Agamemnon’s death are true.
Now Cassandra is in Agamemnon’s car, in his chariot, as he pulls up. And she has been afflicted by Apollo with the gift of second sight, so she can see the future. But because she spurned his advances, as a god he has cursed her with the fact that people will only recognize that she has second sight after the event. So she becomes a prophet of illicit loss, if you like. She can only ask the question that others will not accept until they have the evidence before them. So she appears to be a false prophet until she’s proved to be right. In other words, her capacity for prophecy never has any positive outcome or goal at the time that she gives it. She’s always going to be frustrated in that regard. And the interesting thing is, is that the chorus of Argive elders is partly won over to her complaints, but also rejects her. And this is why in the journalistic tradition that surrounds us today with multiple media platforms, people who warn against a coming danger are often referred to as Cassandras, for adopting the role of Cassandra.
Suddenly, of course, she turns and goes back into the palace, knowing that she will be added to the death total with Agamemnon, because she is killed as his lover with Agamemnon by Clytemnestra at Aegisthus’ behalf.
Then this great moment occurs, which is a moment of catharsis in Aristotle’s terms. Aristotle believed that the point of tragedy was to put on the stage the negative, or more ferocious, or more diabolical side of man, the non-dualist side of man, in order to overcome it.
Because life is born in pain, dies in pain, and consists of quite a lot of pain during the intermediary stages between birth and death. And in order to overcome and face that, particularly in a stoical way, you needed to take up these negative emotions into yourself and have them purged, have them sublimated, to use a modern word. And the way that you purge them is by watching tragedy.
This is why people have always liked to be entertained by watching unpleasant things. It’s a characteristic of our species. And all genres like horror, and all the rest of it, rely upon the fact that people like to see conflict. They like to see contumaciousness; they like to see that which in other circumstances could be perceived as threatening.
And this is what occurs when the doors are flung open at the back of the stage, and Clytemnestra is there with the axe or the sword, and the bath is next to her, and the folds of the net are surrounding and tipping over the outside of the bath, and at the bottom of the bath are the remains of Agamemnon and Cassandra, and they’re wheeled, probably by servants or by members of the auxiliary parts of the theatrical troupe, or there’s a device that brings them forward to the front of the stage. It’s done in a dramatic way. It’s often done in silence.
Greek theater, of course, is of such a moment that we don’t, even today, completely understand how they did it. There was a lot of dance involved in Greek theater. There was a lot of threnody of the body. The actors were non-personified because they all wore masks. Contrary to the cult of the personality and the actor which we have today, they believed in the depersonalization of the actor, because often different actors would play different parts in the same play, because they would be masked. Nearly all the female parts were played by men, so Clytemnestra would be played by a man, which is a tradition which extends to Elizabethan theater.
Hence the old idea that you should never put your daughter on the stage, because only women of a certain sort were put on the stage until relatively late. Because when the Puritans banned our theatre, when English revolutionaries under Cromwell prevented theatre — yet allowed opera — throughout the period of the interregnum, one of the reasons that they did it was to prevent the prospect of indecency — of pornography, if you like — which always comes, not in a literal pornographic way as would subsist today, but through watching scenes of violence, through watching scenes of transgression, through watching scenes of horror. And also watching scenes which are simulacra.
In all faiths, in Orthodox Judaism, in certain forms of pretty restricted Islam, and in what is called fundamental Christianity, there is the view that because God has created the world as it is, art is a blasphemous simulacrum in relation to this. Most of the people who follow these faiths have no desire to impose upon the arts at all, particularly. But this idea that God made the world, and therefore it is a blasphemy to add to that making, and that all art, even great art — particularly great art — takes away from the unmediated religious experience. Which is why many of the puritans, like Prynne and others, oppose the Elizabethan theater, and the Elizabethan stage.
And I want to couple Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and Shakespeare’s King Lear together, because the English people achieved an extraordinary thing during the Elizabethan and Jacobean stagecraft. They basically created something which is amongst the elite art that has ever been created on this planet. This small island and the nationality within it, England, produced material at that time which is comparable to the Greeks, and is acknowledged by the whole world to be comparable to the Greeks.
Shakespeare is the greatest of those that were produced at that time, but there were many others, such as Marlowe and Ben Jonson, and Middleton and Rowley, and all of the others: Kyd, and John Webster, the divine John Webster, who could only write tragedy, who would only write dark, treacly pieces — like The Duchess of Malfi, The White Devil — could only write tragedy. The highest form, the most cathartic form, the most ennobling form. A form which isn’t written today.
Today we have soap operas. Today we have that which is on the tube of the nighttime, the television of the nighttime. It appears that the tragic urge is missing from Western life, and from world civilization. And there is a quite neat fit with that, because the Liberal era can only take tragedy if it’s restorationalist. There’s an enormous archival tradition at the moment, whereby many of the great plays of the past are put on endlessly, in state houses, financed by public money.
One of the more “amusing” features is what’s called racially blind casting. You can now have plays like Julius Caesar, for example, where a half of the cast is black. And yet there’s not a single black character in Julius Caesar. This is done so that the audience is desensitized to the fact that that is truly the case. But also it’s done because there are an enormous number of talented performers who, if you only did restorationalist pieces, could not perform. Indeed, there’s a lot of ideology that plays around the re-presentation of these classic pieces, because nothing is neutral, and everything has to be presented in a particular way.
Othello is a key example. At the beginning of the 20th century, Othello would always be played by a white actor blacked-up. In the middle of the 20th century, certain classically trained black actors, particularly from America, were found to play the part. But at the end of the 20th century, and into the 21st century, Othello is played — on the whole, in very progressive theatre companies at any rate — by a white actor who is not blacked-up. Because the play is regarded as a racist play. It’s regarded as irredeemably racialist. And therefore to draw attention to this fact, Othello is played white. If people ask why this should be done, it’s said “It’s giving a white actor an opportunity that he otherwise wouldn’t enjoy.”
But there’s a degree to which it’s being done to draw attention to the fact that this play can’t be rewritten in a “Newspeak”-like way, even though certain people would like Shakespeare’s plays to be rewritten. The Merchant of Venice has been often subjected to the idea that it should be rewritten. Professor David Cesarini at the University of Southhampton, has said on many occasions that The Merchant of Venice should be textually rewritten, because as a play in its present form it’s emblematic of what in Nineteen-Eighty-Four is called “Crimethink.” The whole play could be reduced to the liberal buzzphrase, to the politically-correct buzzphrase, to the Newspeak buzzphrase, if you align it with the language of Nineteen-Eighty-Four‘s “Newspeak,” as Crimethink.
I remember he was once asked, on The Moral Maze, on Radio 4, “So you’re a better writer than Shakespeare?” And he said “No, not necessarily.” Not necessarily. He said, “But we are living in a different era now, and we have different sensibilities. And people’s sensibilities have to be respected and cannot be trampled upon.” So it’s quite clear that it’s only the canonical status of some of these texts, such as Aeschylus, such as Shakespeare, that prevents them from being “messed about with” in terms of the text. But this is only in relation to the body of the text.
The stagecraft, of course, can be transmuted in all sorts of ways. You have Shakespeare set in concentration camps, or in brothels, or in Chinese restaurants, or against banks of tires which have been pleasingly painted red in order to make a particular point. Or in sets — which are slightly traditional in a strange sort of way — sets without any stagecraft or any props at all. Or you have a revivalist current like the Globe, in London, which reacts against the postmodern jiggery-pokery within Shakespeare and other classical texts, and wants to do them in a totally Elizabethan form. And that can be permitted in a strange sort of way, particularly if it becomes part of an [unintelligible] experience.
So it’s noticeable that all of the classic texts before 1900 have been left, and have not been interfered with except in the way in which they’re presented to an audience, as part of the modality of Western civilization. But the texts that exist now, are so politically correct, and so ingrained as such, that no plays that consist of some of the classical verities that I’ve discussed could be put on now. If somebody wrote Lear now, it would not be permitted. The attitude towards illegitimacy is questionable; Lear’s patriarchy is questionable in relation to the 2 to 3 daughters; the remarks of Kent in relation to Oswald are questionable, particularly psychosexually; the violence would have to be looked at: the blinding scene, when Cornwall blinds Gloucester.
Gloucester is the lower noble underneath Lear who suffers in the subtext of the play. There’s two plays, basically, and there’s two narratives. And they go along with one another. Lear suffers spiritually and mentally, whereas Gloucester suffers physically, because he’s on the lower level. In order to be redeemed, he actually has to suffer the indignity of having his eyes put out by Cornwall.
Of course, Shakespeare’s plays are always morally balanced and seek an Elizabethan equipoise. That’s why when Cornwall puts his boot upon Gloucester’s eyes, and says “Out, vile jelly! Where is thy luster now?” when the blinding scene occurs, a servant raises his hand and a dagger against Cornwall in that particular moment. And he does so because Cornwall has rejected the divine pact.
Basically, nobles should not treat an old man, who is a prisoner and who was a guest, in that way. Therefore he’s rescinded upon part of a contract which is itself hierarchical and divinely inspired. This means the servant is freed, and can rebel against Cornwall’s cruelty in that moment, and in turn morally wounds Cornwall, although he’s finished off himself.
“Ill-timed comes this hurt!” says Cornwall, as he’s dragged off-stage by his scheming and malevolent wife, who’s partly put him up to the blinding of Gloucester anyway. So, even that element of cruelty occurs within a scenario which has a moral framework embedded around it.
This is something which could be said to be missing from Steven Berkoff’s version of Agamemnon, or Bond’s version of King Lear, because in Bond’s play there’s an enormous amount of violence as there is in contemporary cultural material. There’s an enormous amount of abbatoirial excess, what some call the proletarianization of culture, where everything is reduced to its lowest common denominator.
You see this in horror as a genre. A hundred years ago, horror was Bram Stoker and Wilkie Collins and this sort of thing. Now horror is Stephen King. And beneath Stephen King. And beneath, beneath Stephen King. And beneath, beneath, beneath Stephen King. And so on; you get the message. So there’s a degree to which a coarsening and an absence of refinement and a sort of abbatoirial statement, whereby the thing is given you neat, is what goes on today and which is on in every multiplex.
Has anyone come across those Saw films? Saw 1, and Saw 2, and Saw 3, and there must be a fourth one, so there’s Saw 4, and this sort of thing, which is sort of sadistic and abbatoirial, although in a sense no one is being harmed, because you’re only dealing with puppets.
There’s an artistic theory that deals with that area, called the theatre of cruelty, by a surrealist in France in the middle of the 20th century called Antonin Artaud. And there’s a degree to which this material is as cruel as Greek tragedy, is a cruel as Elizabethan tragedy, but there’s no moral or evidential purpose for it to be so. There’s no philosophical reason why it should be so, therefore the thing exists in and of itself.
If you want that degree of abbatoirial horror you could go down to your local butcher’s, go around the back, and plunge your hands into the offal, and into the meat, and move them around, and bring them up, and have a sort of threnody in that sort of a way. But that’s because culturally the thing wouldn’t extend beyond that gesture. And that’s what’s going along with a lot of these pieces, because if you are to make the brutality of life as it’s transfigured in tragic art meaningful, you have to transcend those sorts of actions. Or you have to have a vocabulary to transcend them.
But the doctrine of transcendence is a religious doctrine, essentially. Or is a psycho-social, psycho-emotional, and linguistic pattern which portends to religious belief whether one has any religious belief or not. It means that one believes there are things above the things that face you, and there are things above that, and there are things above those things. Or at least there’s the possibility that such might be the case.
So you’re looking upwards, rather than looking downwards. This is why people go to tragedy and feel exhilarated afterwards, rather than feeling depressed, or out of sorts, or mildly mentally deranged by the depiction of cruelty. It’s because it occurs within the context of a spiritual revelation which is transcendent. But the whole purpose of this sort of culture which we live in today, as Evola and other thinkers have put it, is not to have transcendence at all. It’s to keep man at a certain level. Ultimately, a level of consumption. The expulsion of energy, the repletion of energy, the consumption of goods, the depletion of the consumption of those goods, the need to consume even more of such goods.
If you keep people at a certain level — and the irony is that this is occurring within a maximally capitalist society, dominated by ideas from the soft Marxian Left. This is one of the great dichotomies that we live in, that we live in a Left-wing market, that we live in a libertarian, Left-leaning, capitalist society. The idea of a capitalist Left, or a Left-leaning market, would have struck most thinkers as totally absurd at the beginning of the 20th century, because the market and all forms of Leftism were supposed to be adversarial. Now we live in a fit, whereby the ideas that the products affirm have been taken from a wide range of the Left’s trajectory, whereas the Left itself feels itself to be defeated.
Thirty years ago to have a meeting like this there would have been a riot outside. The Left would not have allowed a meeting of this sort to go ahead unchallenged. But they don’t do that now, because they haven’t got the personnel to do it now. Not particularly. And the reason for that is their ideas have seemed to have come down, and have been smashed to pieces by history. And they’re in a form of oblivion now, partly because the Marxist dystopias that were Soviet-occupied societies in Eastern Europe, real and existing socialism, real and existing cultural Marxism, were such monumental failures for the people who lived under them that they’ve been sloughed off completely.
And yet, many of the ideas — not the practice of lived experience by people who lived under those structures, but many of the ideas — have percolated around and never left the West anyway. And you have this strange triumphalist mixture of the massive ingrained market mechanism, which is sucking in money, and goods, and people from all over the world. Because the flip side to capital movements is migration. If people wonder why London is the way it is now, it’s because when man can touch a screen in the city of London with his thumb and send hundreds of millions of pounds or dollars or euros or yen, or any other currency, across the world; but money and mankind, money and labor, capital and labor, will move in some sort of distended collaboration which each other. And the reason that all sorts of people want to get into the West in order to work at a median level is the flip side of the ability of enormous masses of interest-bearing money to move around the world at the flick of a switch, or the impress of a thumb upon a computer screen in the city of London or any of its regional counterparts.
So the idea of a Marxian capitalist society or a Left capitalist society which once would have been absurd, and is now dismissed as absurd by most progressive thinkers who think they’ve lost out continuously to what they call “the Right.” Because they believe that the capitalist market is conducive to the Right, and has corralled the society over at the Right-end of the spectrum.
Of course, there’s a redoubt, there’s a range of opinion that exists beyond the alleged Thatcherite and Reaganite Right, which is nec plus ultra, which one can never go near, which is a hidden terra incognita, which is an area of terror and psychic blasphemy. But apart from that, they believe that the Right has inherited the Earth, when in actual fact much of what this society once stood for has been eradicated to the point of inexistence by the forces that have conquered since 1945 and thereafter.
Can great art be produced in a society such as this one? It’s very debatable, given the enormous pressures of conformism and censorship. Political correctness is a form of censorship. Routledge is a well-known Center-Left nonfiction publisher. Routledge now insists, subeditorially, on gender-neutral pronouns. This means everyone has to write “he/she,” all of the time. And it’s increasingly difficult, if you’re going to going to produce anything with any degree of stylistic beauty or felicity at all, to write “he/she/it” all the time, when you mean one thing as against another.
Similarly, politically correct ideology means that a tragical truthfulness to life, which often has a religious dimension to it. Or if it doesn’t have a religious dimension to it, it has a higher, profound, philosophical dimension to it. Political correctness, which is based upon the idea that everyone is equal, and everyone is equal in love, doesn’t subsist. You clip your fingers, and you notice in a moment it isn’t true. It isn’t true of any form of human life; it isn’t true of any form of human interrelationship; it’s not true of one relationship between a man and a woman. Therefore, if you are trying to put everything within a paradigm of such radical, enforced linguistic egalitarianism, you will fail instantly, but you will also fail to create great art because it can’t be done in such a restricted, in such a stifling context.
It’s also difficult to rebel against it. In the past, the playwrights of the 1960s and thereafter used to rebel against the Royal Chamberlain and his censorship of the British theater. They used to rebel against targeted restrictions whereby they couldn’t blaspheme against the Christian religion. No one bothers to blaspheme against the Christian religion anymore, because it’s perceived to have collapsed, except for some very small groups. And also the enormous amount of blasphemy against the Christian religion which occurred in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, largely wiped the slate clean in relation to the amount of blasphemy that could be encouraged and was felt to be required, because that was another tradition, that was another curtain that had to be ripped down.
The notion of deconstruction is to reduce things to a basis whereby which they’re no longer oppressive. It’s to deny the rhetoric of oppression within a form. But the problem with that is you end up with nothing. And you end up with a culture that can’t affirm itself. And when a culture can’t affirm itself — artistically, linguistically, and in other ways — it ceases to have any relevance, and it ceases to have any bite, and it ceases to have any sense of reality.
I remember going to see Lear — King Lear, not Bond’s travesty — at the Bristol Old Vic, in the West Country when I was about 18 years of age. You have to have a certain element of physical effort to sit through these pieces, because they last between three and three-and-half hours. You have to pace yourself during the performance. There’s a sort of Marathon Man element to these plays, because they do take quite a bit of resolve to sit through, although there’s an intermission after the end of the third act, and prior to the two acts that remain.
The physicality of theater and the physicality of these performances is also important. This is again an irony, because we live in a society of great physicality, and the totalitarian rendition of sport. But at the same time, these types of art are very fleshy, and very physical, and very demanding to perform. Even their travesties like Berkoff’s Agamemnon, involves an enormous amount of physical acting and mime. And that can actually have a great power, and the audience can have a sense of release through the physical dramaturgy of those who are onstage and depicting these actions in these particular ways.
One of the things that most strikes me now, is the inability to connect to the classical tradition as perceived in great works. There’s a cutoff point around 1900 through 1950, when the entire modus operandi of Western societies began to change, and began to invert. And we have a culture of inversion, basically. A culture of what was once great, can’t be denied its greatness, but is put in a historical niche. It’s the historicizing of previous cultural forms, which are not perceived to have any relevance today except when viewed historically. This is what the restorationist culture is all about.
If you noticed, the state subsidization of the arts began in the 1950s. In the past, the Church used to subsidize art, and the aristocracy used to subsidize art, and then the higher bourgeois used to subsidize art. In the socialist and Stalinistic systems, of course, the state agglomerated all art to itself, and put forward any substitute that was thought to be necessary. In Western societies which exist now, you have public provision for the arts, whereby small elite bourgeois audiences pay money to go and see things which are heavily state subsidized, and which are restorational. Now you have the idea of private-public partnerships in relation to the arts, whereby private money comes in because the state can no longer afford to subsidize these things.
It’s not that nothing new is being written. But nothing new that’s loyal to the creed of political correctness could be performed in a way which is relevant to the classical tradition. So you have a situation where great works may be being written today, but they can’t really be put on, because they would be too offensive and too difficult in all sorts of ways.
What is Western Civilization? Western Civilization is a particular civilization which is reared in Europe — North, East, South, and West — which is expressed through elites, and through individual moments of genius, particularized in particular lives, but that can only be so because of the mass of people that these individuals are drawn from.
Why are people proud that Shakespeare is an Englishman? They’re proud that he’s an Englishman whether they’ve opened any of his plays whatsoever at school when they were forced to do them, because he’s felt to embody a national consciousness, and he’s felt to speak for many who didn’t speak, and who couldn’t speak. And a people are proud that they have somebody like him in their national trajectory, whether they’re interested in his work or not.
Self-pride is very emblematic of an ethnic sense of purpose and also a joie-de-vivre in relation to this life. If you strip that out and take it away from people, they lose something, they lose spirit. They become morbid and depressed. Everyone needs great cultural icons, whether they’re interested in them or not. They are part of the fabric that gives an individual life some sort of meaning.
Increasingly, many individuals in this society do not have an overall or an individual meaning. That’s why they live moment-to-moment and day-to-day in relation to contingency and consumption. The point of great civilization as expressed in great art, is to raise people out of that particular trough and get them — if only momentarily — looking upwards, looking upwards towards the sky. Looking upwards towards higher forms. Looking upwards towards the prospect of archetypal forms. Looking upwards towards the religions of the past, the present, and the future. Looking upwards towards God or the gods, or the idea that they might be there, or the idea that it might be necessary that they’re there, even if you don’t think that they are. That’s the point of great civilization. That’s the point of great work. That’s the point of great art.
Most of it only exists in the past, now. Or exists as a circular moment in time, whereby these great works are reinterpreted in the present.
But nothing is forever, and I’m quite certain that great works are being written now, are being performed now in the minds of certain individuals, are being conceptualized now, but they don’t have an outlet at this time. The point of groups like the New Right on the Continent, here, and in North America — particularly in California, on the far side of the United States — is to create the mental space whereby greatness can come back into culture. Is to create the mental space for higher works of civilization again.
It’s not necessarily to provide those works. That’s not its purpose. Its purpose is to provide the space that exists for them. Because if a people cannot affirm itself through great works, it begins to die, whether or not people have any interest in those great works themselves.
The following text is the transcript by V. S. of Jonathan Bowden’s New Right lecture in London on December 10, 2011. I want to thank Michèle Renouf for making the recording available.
Mishima’s life was dedicated to a return of the spirit of the samurai and a belief in Yamamoto Jōchō’s book Hagakure, which is partly the 17th-century bible of samurai morality whereby life is transfigured by death, and the notion of a warrior who is also an intellectual and a literary figure as well as a spiritual crusader, a priest who kills, is paramount.
Japanese culture is distinct from almost all others on Earth and is still difficult to understand and conceptualize for many Westerners. One of the more glaring things about Japan is that material which is banned in the West is widely available, particularly in terms of pornography, over which there are very little restrictions at all. Even in manga, or Japanese comics, which are often amazingly hardline and hardcore in Western terms.
Japan is a strange society, because the dialectics which move within it are oppositional and highly differentiated to those of the West. It’s probably true that people who are self-identifying in the Western tradition have often admired elements about Japan, particularly imperial Japan. There’s a degree to which there’s not so much a symmetry as a meaningful asymmetry by which the Japanese are perceived as a people who wanted to be themselves in their own way.
Japanese thought is influenced by Confucian, Shintoist, Buddhist, Zen Buddhist, and Taoist ideas and a medley of these finds itself as the basis of what it is to be Japanese. One of the cardinal views is that life is dominated by the spirits of the ancestors, and there is the notion of ancestor worship, which makes the family and the line of a family’s inheritance extraordinarily important. These spirits are called kami and there’s the notion that they can intervene in one’s actual life. These are supernatural ideas, but one of the tricks of Japanese culture, which is very similar to ancient Greece in this respect, is that all orders of opinion can accept these beliefs because there are secular and atheistic interpretations of these belief systems as there are purely religious ones. As in ancient Greece, a woman could kneel or lie before a statue of a god, and yet rationalist intellectuals in the same civilization could regard the divine stories as entirely metaphorical. And yet they would all be accepted as Greek. And they would all be accepted as different definitions of what it was to be Greek or to be a member of a Greek city-state. Mishima, for one, was obsessed by Greece, particularly ancient Greece, and incorporated quite a few Grecian odes and ethics into his books.
Mishima was born into an upper middle-class family in Tokyo and was separated from his other siblings by his grandmother at an early age. A weak and rather effeminate child who was divorced from the company of boys on the order of his grandmother who was obsessed with death and had a rather morbid outlook and was herself quite closely related to key members of the Japanese aristocracy. Mishima had a strange, rather twilight childhood up to the age of 12 when his grandmother died and he was reintroduced starkly to the rest of his family.
Modern and somewhat psychoanalytical interpretations of Mishima’s later conduct and ritual suicide as a political gesture at the end of his life concentrate on these early years as the foundation stones of the cult of living death that his adoration of the samurai was to perpetuate.
Now, Mishima started writing when he was about 12 years of age, possibly when he was 6 years of age, and had his first novel produced when he was between 16 and 18, which was published on war rations paper. The first book was called Confessions of a Mask, but there was a book even before that which is largely forgotten today and which concerns nature worship.
Mishima wrote a wide number of books. He wrote plays, which are both modern and classical in the Japanese tradition. Noh theater, as it’s called. Kabuki theater is a classical tradition in Japan. There’s also a puppet theater in relation to the second city other than Tokyo, Osaka, and the provinces. The tradition being external to Tokyo, the puppet is used instead of the body. In Tokyo, the body is used instead of a puppet. He also wrote two modern plays. One of which was called Madame de Sade, which is about the Marquis de Sade’s long-suffering wife in the early years of their life. That’s Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, who lived between 1740 and 1814. He also wrote a play called My Friend Hitler, which is quite controversial and was published in English, I think, in 1966.
His most famous work, which is widely regarded outside Japan, is a tetralogy at the end of his life called The Sea of Fertility and is about the increasing meaninglessness of Japanese civilization, as he saw it, dominated by an excess of materialism which was alien to it.
Japan began to modernize from what Westerners would call a feudal type of life or pattern of existence in the 1860s and underwent extraordinary modernization. So much so that it is the first hybridized, Westernized Eastern society or Occidentally-oriented Asiatic society, seen in Western terms. I say “seen in Western terms,” because Westerners can only ever see things in their own terms. It’s extraordinarily difficult to step out of one’s own culture and view another culture which is highly advanced and technocratically proficient as well as having an artistry that stretches back centuries, if not a thousand years plus, into the past and yet is based upon axioms which are fundamentally different to one’s own.
To give one example, there is a species of violent comic book, manga as they’re called in Japan, which is extremely sadistic and erotic, and one of these publications is called Rapeman, rather like Spider-Man or Superman, and it’s aimed at a similar audience. The incidence of rape in Japan is extraordinarily small in comparison to other advanced meritocratic and post-industrial societies like the United States, because the Japanese view is that you exteriorize dangerous fantasies by demarcating their existence rather than repressing them. The idea being that life is so ordered and structured in accordance with the social organicism of Japan based upon Confucian ideals that you have to let off some steam from the pressure-cooker eventually and one of the ways to do this is with material that will be regarded as suggestive, extremist, anti-familial, or highly dangerous in Western terms. So, you have a culture of extreme restraint and the possibility of radical violence co-existing in the same continuum because a lot of Japanese ethics and super-abundant ethics, the meta-ethics of a society are about the holding together of contraries in a dynamic state of force.
Much of the Western world became aware of the growing militancy of the Japanese imperial nation-state in and around the beginning of the 20th century when Japan fought the first successful war against a European or a Western society when they essentially defeated the Russian Empire. This was in the Russo-Japanese War, which led to the scenario of a European power (Russia would be regarded as a greater European power in these circumstances, its landmass stretching over into Asia) defeated by a non-occidental rival. This was the first intimation of the modern prowess of Japan that it was prepared to take on major occidental societies in the struggle for world hegemony.
The doctrines that have ruled Japan are essentially those of imperial monarchy, but this was always vitiated by the idea of the shogun or shogunate whereby essentially militaristic feudal lords representing samurai clans drawn from different parts of Japan exercised the imperial advisory role underneath a monarchical overlay. The monarch was seen as appointed by God and were seen as divine. It’s important to understand that for most Japanese until the middle of the 20th century following the defeat the divinity of the emperor was sacrosanct and was no negotiable and was not subject to discussion.
In extreme Right circles in Japan, one of the many reasons why Mishima is a controversial figure is because he’s criticized the Emperor Hirohito at the end of the Second World War when in fact he didn’t abdicate and agree to the American proposals that the Japanese constitution be fundamentally changed.
It’s difficult to imagine a human being who is worshipped as a god in Western terms. Roman emperors were worshipped as gods, but only outside Italy proper and only often in the more backward and remote parts of the empire. Even totalitarian leaders of Western nations in the 20th century who developed around them an anima or aura which could be said to be spiritistic in type have never been worshipped as gods in the formal sense.
The de-divinization of the leadership of Japan in the post-war period was part of the American recasting of Japan so that it would never be a threat again. Japan has one of the largest standing armies in accordance with its population in the world, and all it does is guard the territory of Japan and steam around the various islands that constitute that landmass. There’s a degree to which the Japanese Self-Defense Force, as it’s called, never intervenes in the rest of the world, and you will notice that, UN proscriptions aside, America has not been able to coax Japan out into the various escapades and forms of adventurism which have characterized both the Cold War and the immediate last 20 years after the destabilization of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the Russian Federation in its stead. Japan takes no role even in the Vietnam War. The Americans would have loved Japan to have fought in the Vietnam War, because of close proximity, but they refused to do so.
There’s a strong culture of civic pacifism in Japan rooted in the nihilistic despair and vaporization of the atomic weapons that we used. There’s even a form of revisionism in Japan which is partly state-induced and which is not compatible with other forms of historical revisionism elsewhere in the world. This is the idea that certain official sources and channels and mainstream media in Japan downplay the actual sort of ferocious and horrific events of the atomic weapons use, because they don’t want to draw attention to the war of annihilation struggle and imperial dominion and the desire to carve out an enormous socio-economic empire in near Asia that Japan was engaged in. This means that the victims of the bombing, and there were an enormous number of survivors in both of the cities, blame their own government for perpetuating the war against the United States and its Western allies and in alliance with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. This is a Western ideology which has been seized upon by the victims of the atomic strikes and is often very powerfully used inside Japan. So, you have this paradoxical idea that revisionism is state playing down of Hiroshima and Nagasaki so as to defeat the neo-pacifism of a largely Buddhist movement that seeks to hold the Japanese government as being co-responsible for the use of the atomic weapons when in actual fact in all logic the Americans used the atomic weapons. This is part of a device which is used in Japan to regulate and moderate anti-Americanism, which is still a latent and powerful force in Japanese society given the re-writing of the constitution and the creation of a new civic Japan after the war.
Basically, Japan was changed by the advent of the Second World War and its nuclear-laced aftermath far more than Germany was in the period of Adenauer’s succession between 1945 and 1948. West Germany largely was built on the basis, somewhat rudimentarily, of Weimar Germany, which could be said to be its natural precursor. There’s also a degree to which the norms of West Germany and its domination by the Christian Democratic and Social Democratic power structure alternating with periodic elections and a federal system based initially in Bonn prior to reunification was such that it ramified with many of the states around Germany in Europe. Japan had to chart a totally new course after the Second World War.
You’ll notice that Japan is dominated or has been until relatively recently by one political party. Despite numerous elections, despite numerous attempts to import the Western model into Japan, two party democracy has never really taken off.
One party, somewhat meaninglessly called the Liberal Democratic Party to appease American sort of neo-imperial tastes, has dominated the country since the nuclear explosions and the de-divinization of the emperor and the resulting capitulation of the armed forces, most of which did not commit ritual suicide on the event of Japan’s defeat because the emperor ordered them to stand down.
Mishima represents the culture of the imperial officer corps who fought the war in imperial Japanese’s stead first against China and then against the Western powers. It’s important to recognize that Japan initially thought about attacking the Soviet Union – Russia in a sense – rather than the United States. This is partly because Japan fought a war successfully against Russia in the early part of the 20th century, but it’s also because a significantly Right-wing part of the samurai-based officer corps wanted to attack the underbelly of the Soviet Union. Don’t forget, we have a situation in the 1930s where large sections of China are occupied by Japan, particularly the industrial area of Manchuria. There was also in Western and humanist terms extreme brigandage and ferocity and what is called atrocity in those areas committed by Japanese troops.
If Japan had invaded the Soviet Union’s softer underbelly and gone up into the Asiatic republics of what was then the Soviet Union at the time of maximum tension in the Soviet Union and during a period where the Soviet Union was under extreme attack at the point of near defeat by the forces of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union possibly could have been defeated and destroyed, and the whole history of the world would have been different. Indeed, in 1934 or 1936 there was a rising by 4,000 officers, all of whom were accredited samurai, which took over Tokyo and demanded that the imperial general staff orient Japan’s would-be offensive effort against the Soviet Union both for patriotic, geopolitical, and historical reasons. Also because Communism was seen as a great threat to the imperialistic and dynastic system that ruled in Japan.
The samurai are a type of soldierly elite that has existed in other cultures in the world but rarely has been concretized to the degree that took place in Japan. At times in Japanese history 10% of the population were accredited samurai, including women who were married into samurai clans. The samurai were meant to be learned warriors who were steeped in the Buddhist tradition, which is in some ways in Western terms a mildly pacifist tradition, but the hard edge of the tradition is the martial arts which the samurai learn in their initial training.
Samurais are accredited, unless they’re independent of all lords, to a lord or to a feudal baron in Western terms, and they formed clans or inter-ethnic enclaves or forms of identity which identified with particular feudal lords as against others. You then built up into a shogunate whereby an imperial leader and his wife or wives, because most marriages at the upper end of Japanese society were arranged . . . You had relationships with wives, you had possible relationships with geishas of which there were different types, and you had the possibility of multiple wives and multiple families for some men of the Japanese ruling class and upper class.
One important thing to remember about Japan is that Japan is the society that rejected Christianity formerly and in an extreme way. There is a degree to which few societies on Earth have partly begun a conversion to Christianity and then reversed and negated it involving the massacre of many Christians and Christian missionaries. Exposed to the Portuguese and the Spanish Empires, Japan hesitated over the adoption of Christianity and whole samurai clans in various parts of Japan converted to the Christian faith. This was later undone by later shogunates who returned to Shintoism or to innate Japanese paganism.
This faith system believes that the Japanese are uniquely chosen on Earth and are the children of the sun and are represented governmentally and institutionally and metaphysically by a living sun god who is their emperor.
The duty of the samurai is to kill with love and understanding and in accordance with complete serenity in a semi-religious way on behalf of this divine autocrat or leader even if his will is interpreted by a Bismarckian figure such as a shogun. Again, one strives for Western metaphors to understand elements of the Japanese mindset, because it is rare for this formulation to exist in Western culture.
Simulacrums of the samurai in the Western tradition might be said to be the Templars and the Hospitalers in the Middle Ages or elitist Christian warriors reared to a patriarchal standard of ascetic masculinity, those who believed ideologically in Crusades against Islam, for example, on behalf of the faith and genuinely seemed to believe in them at the time when they professed those views. One possibly also has elites in all armies, such as the Praetorian elite in the Roman legions, the Spartan courage and system of land-based fighting, the corollary to the Athenian naval-based prowess which provided the balance in Greek military warfare that enabled them to resist Persian invasion and elsewhere. But the cultivation of a priesthood that is also a killing machine, which is what the samurai were, is difficult to understand in Western terms.
In the Hagakure, the samurai must never show weakness even at a point of weakness and never speak in such a way that undermines his sense of self or his loyalty to his lord and master. Samurai should strive for this odd combination of fanaticism, steeliness, clearness of thought, and serenity of temper. The samurai should feel no guilt over killing, but the flip side of this is that the samurai is always ready to kill himself in relation to a system of honor.
In the Japanese traditionalist belief system, suicide is morally meritorious, which is something that the Western mind finds difficult to comprehend. This is because Shintoism preaches the notion of direct reincarnation as a fact rather than just an idea that can be spiritually postulated. In samurai rhetoric and law, and these ideas have the force of law for this pre-existent military elite inside Japan, if you were killed or if you committed ritual suicide you were immediately reborn in a mother’s womb 40 days later as a new human being. This meant that in their conception of self-suicide was not the end. Most of the greatest and most glorious figures in Japanese culture have committed suicide and have been praised for this both in their own time and afterwards. All suicides have to write a poem before they die which is called a death poem and is often in the form of a haiku, this minimalist, condensed type of poetry often dealing with themes of gentleness and forgiveness prior to the ultimate form of death.
Mishima believed that this is what Japan was and is and could be, and he believed that the spirit of the samurai, both male and female, fluctuated in Japan and should be brought back in a period where it had been relaxed to a point of semi-oblivion in the late 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and up to his own seppuku in 1970 when he ended his own life on the 25th of November 1970 in a way which caused consternation.
There is no parallel in the West for this sort of thing. If you like, the most prominent post-war British Western novelist is somebody called William Golding who wrote The Lord of the Flies. It’s like William Golding committing suicide on the steps of Downing Street after having demanded a change of course by a post-war British prime minister drawn from either the Labour or Conservative tradition and also having spent his entire life getting physically fit to a point of military perfection rather than being a sort of flabby Guardian aesthete, which essentially he was.
It’s also redolent of a man who owned his own private army, which Mishima developed for his own use. This was a society called the Shield Society and consisted of military trainees and conscripts about 100 in number that were run as a quasi-paramilitary force by Mishima and were allowed to train in Japanese army camps after 1966. Mishima’s ritual suicide took place in an army camp in 1970.
The liberal Western interpretation of Mishima’s life is a failed attempt to return to the samurai verities of old which remains concurrent with the literary output that is highly revered in the West and outside Japan. Westerners as well as Easterners put Mishima forward for three Nobel prize citations in the post-war period, yet he never won, partly because another Japanese writer who was very much his literary sponsor won the prize in 1968, and Japanese culture is so difficult to understand from many mainstream Western perspectives that it was felt that in that generational era another Japanese wouldn’t win the prize after it had been adopted to one of their own number. So, Mishima became gradually aware to the fact that he would have to wait for that. It’s widely believed that he deserved the prize as a number of other major writers in the Western world have done but have not received it.
Mishima’s literary output is divided into two halves, one of which deals with, if you like, quite decadent themes in certain respects. Mishima is drawn to extremes, and in Confessions of a Mask he’s drawn to extremes of auto-mutilation and sacrifice of self and the wearing of masks as part of social identity. The concept of the mask is cardinal to what it is to be Japanese. So frightened are the Japanese of giving offense which will lead to extreme violence between individuals and/or between groups that a culture of extremely formal politeness is institutionalized whereby no one wants to lose face in relation to a rival, a family member, a competitor or somebody they’re associated with in business, commerce, or state practice. This is quite opposed to the post-1960s belief in the Western world of emotional authentication whereby people are professed to express their emotions particularly in public. Otherwise they will be belaboring under false consciousness or will be internally divided or troubled. In Jungian psychoanalysis or analytical psychology there is the belief that all people have a shadow which is their more negative, ferocious, adversarial and barbaric side and to be a whole human being this has to be integrated into the personality. In the Japanese way of thinking, this is already integrated into the personality and doesn’t need to be shown because it would lead to conflict of a very barbaric manner.
There’s an extreme tension in Japanese society and there are strong sado-masochistic features from a Western viewpoint in a society that holds itself taut and rigid almost like a man in archery who is just about to release a longbow. And yet at the same time there is a softness and a gentility and an aesthetic decorum especially about traditional Japanese attitudes which strike a Westerner as a belief in perfection and stylization. This ability to slip from stylization – the tea ceremony for example, which is a key samurai ritual copied by the rest of the culture and which has to be separated from just tea drinking in an English sort of 4:30 in the afternoon way — and the possibility of extreme violence, which is always the legacy of the samurai tradition and which lies at the heart of a lot of Japanese notions of themselves.
The culture of the manga or the film on paper which is the comic book, which in the West is essentially regarded as a form for children and adolescents which has to be outgrown when one transfers to proper books and the adult version of which is the film rather than the comic or graphic novel. In Japan, some of the most senior artists and senior political figures in the society are people who write comic books, which are regarded as a major cultural form and are sold in their millions if not their tens of millions.
An enormous subculture within manga, which deals with every topic on Earth from cooking to romance to war worship, is the samurai genre which spills over into television, film, and books. Many of the samurai novels and plays and films strike Western audiences as stereotypical, but a Western parallel would be the fantasy of the western in the United States. Everyone has probably seen A Fistful of Dollars with Clint Eastwood and has seen The Magnificent Seven and these sorts of westerns, all of which are based upon Japanese samurai films and cultural abstracts of that sort.
One of the most remarkable samurai films of all time is by the greatest Japanese director, as many conceive it inside and outside Japan since the Second World War, a man called Kurosawa who did a film called Ran, which means “chaos” and is the samurai version of King Lear, which with Hamlet is Shakespeare’s preeminent play possibly next to Macbeth, Othello, and many others. This Japanese King Lear, which is an extraordinary piece of work and lasts for about 4 hours, is an attempt to distill the samurai ethic using a Western story. This is still controversial in Japan. Although many Japanese artists have been famous outside Japan, the belief in cultural and ethnic exclusivity is very extreme in Japan by Western standards even to this day.
Kurosawa was heavily criticized for using a Western model in order to transmute Japanese meaning and form. It is still controversial even to use extra-Japanese forms in classical Japanese usage even in modernity.
Mishima got around this partly by transmuting Japanese forms in ways that Westerners could understand. In his novel called The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, he deals with a burning down of a Buddhist shrine by a psychopathic eccentric who was a classical outsider in terms that both Western and Eastern audiences could understand but not necessarily sympathize with. The book caused consternation in Japan and was based on a true case. The nearest parallel I can think of is Truman Capote’s non-fiction novel In Cold Blood, which is about the murder of a Kansas family by two mid-American drifters whose internal psychological torments and anxieties are dealt with at extreme length by Capote prior to their judicial killing by the federal American system in, I think, an Iowa penitentiary in the late 1960s.
Mishima believed that a culture should be exclusive and that Japanese life and circumstances were unique and demanded unique answers inside Japan that were purely Japanese. Like all artists, his form of nationalism was one that did not necessarily appeal to Right-wing nationalists inside Japan.
Paul Schrader’s film, which is a very famous Hollywood film, and for a Hollywood film it’s a very good film,called Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters . . . Schrader’s most famous for his extremely violent, excoriating film about the transgression of American values called Taxi Driver, a film which many people will have seen or at least heard of. Now, in his film about Mishima, three of Mishima’s novels, one from The Sea of Fertility tetralogy, are reconfigured as stories external to Mishima’s life but which he gives literary value to by virtue of his own biography. The fourth quadrant of the film is biographical/autobiographical and deals with Mishima’s own life.
In Schrader’s piece, Mishima’s seen as a man whose death is foretold by the nature of the ideology he adopts. One which is both an emotional, a literary, a speculative, a martial and an intellectual ideology. The sort of ideology that Mishima proposed in his novels and plays was similar to that put forward by D. H. Lawrence in the West and yet different with similar elements to Friedrich Nietzsche’s thought at the end of the 19th century and yet distinct.
There was something also irreducibly “other” and Japanese about it which no Westerner could completely grasp. I think there is something in the Western tradition, which although not frightened of suicide, regards it with a degree of disrespect. Certainly the idea that a suicide can be beautiful and is the apotheosis of a life and of a moment of religious intensity is not alien to the West, but it is relatively alien in the West and has attracted few ideological adherents in most forms of Western history.
The main Western group that preaches suicide at the moment is the Italian-American Sicilian Mafia whereby a Mafia don who is cornered by his colleagues and has nowhere to go is meant to open his veins in a warm bath as certain senators and other leaders of the Roman republic and empire did in the Western world. But the Western view of warriorship is always to try to survive so that you can fight on. Western terrorists rarely ever kill themselves no matter how violent or fixated or paramilitary the logic of their own language and being might be. IRA men, UDA men, whatever they might have been would inflict pain and violence but always sought to get away afterwards, and this is very much the Western ethic in battle. The idea of a deliberate sacrifice of self, which will occur in slaughter anyway, because soldierly rearing and military training is partly being trained for death as all people in military command structures understand, because military life is where emotions are heightened to a degree which civilian life can no longer cope with the exertions, particularly the moral exertions which are required.
The nearest Western version to a man like Mishima, who in a way superseded him because he had a military background that Mishima couldn’t boast and because of the feebleness of Mishima’s body when he came to be commissioned in the Japanese Imperial Army at the Second World War couldn’t ascribe to, is Ernst Jünger. Ernst Jünger is probably the supreme example of an artist, a literati, a secular spiritualist, and an extreme soldier who fought in the First World War for four years from 1914-1918, was awarded two Iron Crosses as well as the highest medal for valor, the Pour le Mérite of the Prussian Imperial Army, and was wounded fourteen times at the front to which he returned and only stood down with the surrender of the German imperial forces at the armistice at the end of that conflict in 1918. If you read books like Fire and Blood, which only exists in German, or Battle As Inner Experience, which is likewise only available in German or the two versions of his four-pronged wartime epic, which are available in English, The Storm of Steel and Copse 125, you come across a man who has a spiritual view of warfare and could be described as a Western samurai.
The samurai tradition basically believes that the potential of a soldier has to be high rather than low. It’s the combination of a university professor, a martial arts bodybuilder, and an extreme warrior. This is an unusual combination which in most societies has only been restricted to tiny little militaristic elites or elites that guard an imperial or quasi-divine figure. The Praetorian Guard, the Immortals in the Persian court, an organization that was partly reinvigorated by the Shah of Iran during his period of power, the SS to a degree, and similar organizations that would now be called special forces are the closest you get in the Western tradition to the samurai ethic. But even then your average SAS man could hardly be described as an intellectual or a literati. Nor is that insisted upon. However, the degree of physical courage, hardness, rectitude, and readiness for martial conflict which Delta Force, the Navy SEALs in the United States, the Spetsnaz forces in the post-Soviet Russia, the Special Air Service Regiment and Special Boat Service Regiment and the elite squads of the German and Italian army, and probably the elite of the French Foreign Legion as well could be said to carry out and do carry out in Western neo-imperial missions all over the Third World to this day are the nearest you get to the sort of endless military training and subservience to authority that the samurai had to evince.
There’s also the combination of a degree of individualism as well, because these are warriors who are bound to have to fight on their own often behind enemy lines, and it’s noticeable in the enormous literature which prevails in modern Britain, or post-modern Britain, of the SAS warrior, the Andy McNab subcultures and all their endless spin-offs and various media whereby SAS men and their equivalents are sort of worshipped because of the yearning for a heroic and the yearning of a return to elements of heroic masculinity which are shot through with individuality. But again, despite all the courage and military preponderance that such individual warriors, and individualistic at that, will show there is not the culture of a refined ethic of beauty, the religious sensibility, or the cult of intellectuality, which although a small minority of samurai would actually have evinced in their own era was nevertheless the guiding ideology of this type. The combination of the warrior and the aesthete is not uniquely Japanese, but the ideology that pushed them together was and to a certain extent still is.
After Japan modernized its society in the 1860s, the Japanese imperial ruling class went for a national conscript army along Western lines, but the whole officer corps and the whole elite of the Japanese army after the defeat of the shogunate, which involved a monarchical restoration in conceptual terms after the 1860s, was samurai in order and orientation. This in turn gets us into a very controversial area which most studies of Mishima, which tend to be purely literary in form, tend to reject. This is the treatment of Western prisoners by the Japanese Imperial Army during the Second World War.
Many Westerners still remember hideous disfigurements, malnutrition, and mistreatment of prisoners both Western and Eastern by the Japanese Imperial Army. The Mishimas of this world never really commented on this because their system of moral ethics in this is in some ways different to a dualist, a Manichaean, or a Christian or Christianized or post-Christian system. In Mishima’s conception of the world, without speaking for him unduly, although it’s there in texts such as The Way of the Samurai and Sun and Steel and “the pathway of the samurai is death” and books about the heroic martyrs of the Japanese Imperial Army is that pain and cruelty is part of life and are on a continuum with peace and benignity, so there’s a degree to which there is not a moral soul searching about what is regarded as evil in other spiritual trajectories although there would be no denial that evil can exist and that men in battle will perpetuate it.
The important thing about the sort of pagan morality the samurai evinced is that it was hierarchical rather than dual. Rather than behaving well or badly, a society such as this or a caste such as this drawn from a society, which it probably was quite unrepresentative of as such elites always are, has a hierarchical notion of morality whereby honor and the esteem that one is held in by one’s warrior colleagues is more important than dualist preparations. So, a samurai who has disobeyed an order or has been caught in a cowardly act or has retreated before the enemy will be demanded to commit ritual suicide instantly. Instantly! Just like that, with little preparation. Just has to be mentally prepared for this. Traditionally, samurai would cut the tops of their fingers off for minor indiscretions and for minor infractions of various rules in their honor-based system which is called bushido. There is a sort of cultivation of the masochism of the flesh as well as the extremity of externalized violence which is a Japanese tradition and which essentially effects their attitudes in all areas aesthetic, literary, poetic, religious, and sensual and sexual as well. So, Japanese culture contains some very extreme metaphysical postulates which are openly avowed whereas in most societies such tendencies are often hidden or glossed over or regarded with a certain degree of discretion.
The radicalism of the Japanese army during its expansionist phase and its ferocity towards enemies as well as its deep sense of discipline and self-control was commented upon by many people at the time. Indeed, in the Rape of Nanking, for example, the German ambassador in a society with which Germany was then at that time moving towards alignment with, West and East, described the conduct of Japanese troops as bestial viewed in traditional Western terms. And this was a German cultural attaché at that particular Chinese embassy which had been invaded from without by the Japanese Imperial Army.
There’s a degree to which Mishima, like Jünger about the excesses that the Prussian tradition can go in for on occasion, remains silent about these sorts of matters much to the extreme anger of humanistic and moral Western critics. This is because their view of life is aesthetically different and super-charged in relation to what is currently part of present civility.
One of Mishima’s remarks about his own civilization was its feminization, which was something that a large number of Right-wing criticizers of their own societies have put forward in the post-war period. It is quite true that the army and the military tradition has completely vacated the civilized and civic space in nearly all Western societies, including the United States. Armies are purely professional and are no longer conscript. The bulk of the population never comes near armed force or the utilization of that force. Young Westernized men never go in for military training. One of the last Western countries to get rid of military training for the young was France. Always done on the lines of cost and because the military don’t want a large number of the conscripts that they regard as very substandard troops that they have to lick into shape for sociological reasons and wouldn’t be much good martially. This is why you have a confluence of cost-cutting, neo-liberal politicians, and army and navy and air force technocrats who wish to get rid of conscript armies. Interestingly, in France’s case, the last two political parties that voted for the tradition of mass military conscription were the Front National and the Communist Party of France. All of the parties in between them, in the middle if you like, center Left and center Right, voted for a paid, patriotic army of volunteers who were not going to interfere with the business of military life.
It’s always true, of course, that armies constellate around elites, and even a professional vanguard army of people who wish to fight in such a force on behalf of their own nation-state or confederation form an elite in relation to the mass of the citizenry, but never before has the citizenry been so disempowered in relation to military life.
Mishima didn’t preach the militarization of Japanese life, which is something that someone like Ernst Jünger preached for interwar Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. There is a degree to which Mishima’s belief was that the army should once again become the template of Japanese civilian life and should become the model for a post-war Japan that related to the pre-war Japan that went down in atomic defeat.
After writing the better part of a hundred novels and plays and non-fiction works, at least 40 of which stand alone as literary items – the West will quickly run off items for money – Mishima proposed a solution to the dilemma of post-war Japan. Japan has been politically crucified in certain respects since the Second World War as has Germany. A very powerful country economically and yet a country with almost no military resource outside or external to its own borders and a country where people are afraid to summon up any foreign policy that can conflict with American global prerequisites.
There’s a degree to which the Japan of the post-war era is a politically humiliated society and a militarily humiliated society which is also an economic super-power. Germany, certainly in relation to the rest of the European Union, is in much the same situation. Both countries have internalized their massive defeats in the second global conflagration of the 20th century. Both have related to those defeats in different ways. Both have engaged in an endless politics of apology and absence of self-defense in relation to what hostile Western historians tend to call the unmastered past.
Don’t forget that although it’s regarded as obscure by most Westerners, the entire Japanese military leadership, often in a symbolic way, was put on trial after the Second World War. Massive war crimes trials were conducted along the Nuremberg patent despite the fact that atomic weapons had been used in order to finish the conflict on the Japanese peninsula. The Japanese elite has internalized the idea that the use of atomic weapons was justified because of the possible several millions of deaths that would have accrued when samurai-based warriors on the Japanese mainland fighting for a god-king, as they perceived the empire cult at that time, would have wreaked havoc and would have killed an enormous number of Americans and other Western allies and paid the price in terms of body count themselves. In this way of looking at things or point of reference, the Western historiographical tradition regards the use of atomic weapons, the only time they’ve ever been used in anger by one nation-state against another, as justified partly because it saved so much chaos and rancor which would have been occasioned by a conventional invasion of Japan. Although there is deep anger in Japan about the use of these weapons, in typical fashion a lot of that has been turned inwards inside Japanese culture in relation to pacifist usage, possible feminization of life seen in masculine, traditional samurai and martial terms and in terms of the Buddhist tradition.
There’s little social anger towards the United States in a publically affordable way, and this is because the United States has completely dominated and morally and mentally invaded post-war Japan to a degree that most Westerners cannot configure. It’s only because Japanese culture is so distinct and freestanding and resistant to Westernization in some of its own terms that Westerners don’t realize how much post-war Japan has been Westernized in America’s image.
Now, the belief that one author, rather like Ezra Pound in relation to Fascist Italy as regards the governmental structures and economic power of the United States, could change this is part of the fantasy of what it is to be an important literary writer, particularly one who believes in the bardic tradition. The idea that writers speak for a whole people or writers speak for something more important than themselves. The liberal conception of the writer is of essentially a lonely creature scribbling or tapping away on a computer now in a room whose products are bought and sold as any other commodity by those in the cultural marketplace. But the bardic tradition holds that the artist creates on behalf of a people and at least attempts to speak for large proportions of that people in key moments.
Mishima’s struggle with himself and with literature came to an end with The Sea of Fertility trilogy in the late 1960s which talks a great deal about small conspiratorial groups of Right-wingers who contrive with elements of the post-imperial Japanese military and general staff to overthrow the business, corporate and political elite of liberal, democratic Japan and reinstitute emperor-worship. In one of his essays, Mishima asks, “Why did the emperor have to become a human being?” because traditionally the emperor was not regarded as human in Japan up until about 1945, 1946, and thereafter.
Mishima made his last stand and his last statement in an East Tokyo army base on the 25th of November 1970 where with either three or four acolytes from the Shield Society and dressed in largely pre-1945 and imperial Japanese military uniforms designed by himself and with messages which were pithy statements of martial intent which Japanese warriors traditionally wear on their body. If you notice, in many Asiatic houses there are often slogans or pieces of Buddhist scripture that are written calligraphically on the wall as either banners or forms of art, and they essentially adopt the position of a painting on the wall. Sometimes Japanese warriors write a slogan such as “Death is the Cardinal Reality” or something like that from the Hagakure and fold it around their head with the imperial emblem of Japan, which is the sun.
The Shield Society, which was Mishima’s own personal militaristic little society numbering around a hundred persons, all of whom were supremely physically fit, all of whom were male, all of whom were invested with martial arts, had as its symbol two imperial Japanese helmets from the 17th century cast in red and facing each other.
Mishima prepared banners and a proclamation which would be read out to the soldiers. He met, under a pretext of political falsity, General Mashita who was in command of that particular East Tokyo army base. Swords and daggers – traditionally the samurai has a very long sword, he has two of them and he has two short or stabbing swords. In samurai warriorship, the culture of modern war, killing from a distance, is disprivileged even though, of course, in modern warfare the Japanese army is highly organized and mechanistically capable and is as fully prepared to use modern weapons as anyone else. But interestingly they dovetail these ancient and modern ideas with the cult of suicide and reckless personal death for an imperial and popular mission. The cult of the kamikaze pilots, for example, who would dive their planes into American ships causing massive explosions in their internal organs and workings and disable them and often destroy them in the Pacific theater of war was part and parcel of that particular endeavor.
Mishima and his colleagues strode into Mashita’s office, disarmed him, tied him up, produced some slogans on banners which they then draped from windows which led to a balcony outside this particular general’s office, and then marched out to address the troops. About 1,000 Japanese troops were lined for some internal Japanese army matter and it spread like wildfire that Mishima or somebody was acting in a strange or possibly terrorist manner in relation to this base. By the end of Mishima’s speech to the troops, which was relatively short, helicopters were flying overhead in an attempt to disrupt what he was saying.
In his speech to the troops, which apart from its initial phase when the troops stood in shocked silence was received by jeers and hoots by the majority of them, Mishima demanded a return to the empire of the sun. He demanded a return to empire-worship and to imperial worship of the majesty of the emperor. He demanded that the post-war emperor would be declared Tennō, be declared a god again and be declared the god of the Japanese people. He also argued that the army cease to be American mercenaries, as he called it, and return to their traditional mission as the soul of Japan. He basically argued for a restoration of the Japanese war dead and implicitly that the Japanese Emperor Hirohito at the time of the surrender in 1945 should have never denied his divinity or been forced to do so by American license and should have accepted his responsibility as in Buddhism for the war dead. He was essentially demanding revisionism, the revision of the past and a sort of moral statement of victory in defeat which would allow the traditional Japan to resurface and to claim a form of spiritual conquest even after the bankruptcy of physical defeat in the atomic weapons used against its cities in the mid-1940s.
Mishima was really asking for the impossible and asking for demands that the whole of contemporary Japan with the exception of certain fringe far-Right and samurai groups had set their face against.
Why did Mishima ask for these impossible demands which, to invent a term or a neologism, could be describe as impossibilist demands? Many Western historians and literati believe that Mishima wanted to die and wished to commit suicide at this time and used the call to arms of a renascent imperial Japan based upon god-emperor worship and the kami of the past as his excuse to commit hari-kari or seppuku in either Western or Japanese terms. This may have some psychological truth to it. Mishima was obsessed with death and with the morbid undercurrents of life and with the samurai cult of self-extinguishment from a very early age. He certainly had planned his suicide and his will and his testamentary deposits over a year prior to the act. Every element of the act was thought through aesthetically.
After his speech was rejected by the body of the troops, he went back into the room and said various Shintoist prayers with his three or four colleagues. He then knelt down and ripped open his belly with one of the shorter of the samurai knives, which is the beginning of the ritual suicide in Japanese warrior culture. At the end of this act, your head is literally severed by another samurai who stands behind you. The head is then held aloft and then prayers are said over the head. His colleague committed ritual suicide in a similar way.
There is also a degree to which, as also happens in real life, the chosen associate of the suicide who later committed suicide himself couldn’t go through with the act and the stronger hand of a third samurai had to be used in order to inflict the beheading. The two heads were then placed beside each other and ritual Buddhist and Shintoist prayers were said over the dead. This is because in their belief system, of course, you are reincarnated as new life after 40 days and so this is not the end. It is a perpetuation of a prospect of a new beginning.
It is true to say that his ritual suicide and his demand for cultural revision and national reemergence caused a consternation in Japan. You have to understand that he was the darling of the Eastern Western media in Japan for quite a long period. He was also widely translated in an era when Japanese writers were not particularly widely translated. He was also widely popular inside Japan despite being a self-consciously literary writer. It literally caused consternation that he had done this. His revision and interpretative re-issue of the Hagakure, the Bible of the samurai from three to four centuries before, became a best-seller in Japan after his funeral. Ten thousand ordinary Japanese, not associated with Right-wing groups or associated with nationalist caucuses or associated with samurai undercurrents inside or outside of the Japanese army at the time or associated with literary circles, attended Mishima’s funeral, which was an event unheralded in the culture of the Japan at that time. It basically caused an enormous civic and psychological shock in Japan.
Was Mishima on a trajectory of his own? Did he represent the soul of his people as he believed? Was his act a lonely and masochistic one totally contrary to the post-modern and Westernized wiles of contemporary Japan? Or was it in a sense a return, as he would have configured it, to fundamental verities about what it was to be Japanese as against any other nationality on Earth?
Nobody really can come up with an answer. Possibly an answer is a medley of all of those questions put into one statement. A Westerner, certainly, is outside the remit of force and fire and the circle of the sun which is necessary to ponder such questions.
But there is a degree to which most of Yukio Mishima’s major works have been translated into English, including Confessions of a Mask, Sun and Steel, Madame de Sade, My Friend Hitler, On the Heroic War Dead of the Japanese Nation, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Forbidden Colors, The Sea of Fertility trilogy, and many others. The interesting thing about them is they often deal with a decadent violence and an amorality, such as in The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, unless the samurai ethic is put underneath them and those sort of yearnings for violence and for order which he sees in traditional pre-modern, pre-Second World War versions of Japanese society are re-institutionalized.
Blind Cyclops: The Strange Case of Doctor Fredric Wertham
(”King Lear” is briefly mentioned in this.)
Fredric Wertham, 1895–1981
In 1954 an obscure psychiatrist penned a book called Seduction of the Innocent which almost put paid to the entire comic book industry in the United States. The whole incident is almost forgotten today, but it is highly instructive over how “fire-storms” and cultural wars can break out. It is also reasonably true to say that–unlike the parallel film industry–it took American comics about three decades to fully ingest and recover from Doctor Wertham’s assault.
Fredric Wertham was an Ashkenazic psychiatrist who basically applied half-digested ideas from social anthropology into the cultural realm. He definitely believed that many of the tear-aways and juvenile delinquents that he had to deal with in the late 1940s and early 1950s were the products of bad culture.
It’s instructive to point out that Wertham doesn’t seem to import any information from other disciplines or clusters of ideas. Like Boas and Margaret Mead, he believes that Man is totally socially conditioned when almost the opposite is true. Strongly influenced by real criminal cases, Wertham believed that young louts and hoodlums were the actual product of their violent “reading” material.
This is almost completely base about apex. It was true that reform school types majored on pulps, irregular ‘zines–the subliminal pornography of that era–and violent comic books. Many of the latter were published by Entertainment Comics (EC), owned by William Gaines, whose firm was virtually forced out of business as a result of Wertham’s fiat.
It is important to realize that a small proportion of Wertham’s assertions were true, at least from a socially conservative perspective. About five percent of these comics or graphic novels depicted quite considerable sadism (eye gouging, etc.) and tacitly sexual imagery. It is also true that such material was unashamedly targeted at minors, children, and young adults. Most parents instinctively believe that the escapist material which the young like to peruse is harmful–and a small proportion of it doubtless is.
But what Wertham doesn’t understand (on largely ideological grounds) is that mankind’s nature proves to be biologically grounded–the social and environmental attributes of which are themselves tributaries of genetics. Goaty youths want to peruse violent, forceful, imaginative, masculinist, and heroic material in order to escape from an often hum-drum existence. It is doubtless correct, however, that those with a psychopathic personality will be attracted to material that ramifies with their deepest urges.
The publication of Doctor Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent led to his appearance before the Senate Sub-committee on Juvenile Delinquency and the decimation of the comics industry thereafter. Many of these comics were completely harmless, in my view–the majority of their themes were Gothic staples akin to Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales, or the works of Ambrose Bierce, Arthur Machen, and Edgar Allan Poe. The bulk of them would quite easily have provided scripts or (more accurately) story boards for The Twilight Zone and other series in the ’50s.
Nonetheless, due to the overwhelming ethnicity of those who founded the comics industry, a subtle “liberal” bias pervades. The touch (at this historical period) is extremely light, but anti-racism, a trace of anti-McCarthy feeling, anti-anti-Semitism, hostility to any type of color bar, a certain anti-police rhetoric, and an unheroic attitude to military service all prevail.
The latter point is quite interesting. In contrast to the virulent patriotism of Sergeants Fury and Rock at Marvel and DC later on, EC comics were pacifist, dead-beat, and cynical. It’s almost as if there attitude was more redolent of an anti-Vietnam war comic like War is Hell—even an ultra-cynical piece like Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun. (This piece of agit-prop, in artistic guise, goes right back to early Communist anti-war art, on the German side, after the Great War. This involved brochures or picture books which depicted soldiers who had been dreadfully maimed at the front. The Nietzschean response would be to commit suicide; the Leftist one to exhibit the maimed.)
Wertham’s views were subtly different from all of this, however. Despite sharing the “soft Left” or Jewish humanist mind-set of EC (up to a point), he saw things in a much wider way. After all, his intervention led to the self-imposed Comics Code (for fear of state intervention), as well as the destruction of hundreds of thousands of comics by state troopers in the ’50s. Some grainy black-and-white photos from this decade still survive.
It is interesting to note that much of the indictment of one particular government in the 20th century—book burning; persecution of modernist art; eugenics and dysgenics in psychiatric hospitals, etc.—all occurred in virtually every Western society. This includes Sweden, Britain, and the United States, where far Right movements were all conspicuously unsuccessful.
Bloated with success, Wertham attempted to “clean up” early television in the same way. But he was picking on a much larger, better financed, and more resilient industry here. It also possessed much more influential political backers and friends. His anti-televisual thesis, War on Children (1959) couldn’t find a publisher, and Wertham’s cultural influence subsequently waned.
His response was to become even more hysterical and side-lined, however. In his fringe published book in 1966, A Sign for Cain, Wertham declared that the increasing violence, grotesquerie, desensitization, and commercial “paganism” of mass media was laying the grounds for a new Holocaust. This was an extraordinary claim when taken at face value!
Yet Wertham was tapping into something—like Christian evangelicals and puritan campaigners of the time—who realized that generic media is a factor of 20 to 50 times more violent, explicit, sensual, sub-pornographic, and “uncensored” now than when I was born in 1962. Despite having campaigned for this “liberation,” many liberals are secretly uneasy about what they have unleashed—particularly if they settle down to have children in mid-life. But it’s too late now!
Put rather tritely, what Wertham and Co. misunderstand is Man’s dual nature. Most normal or well-adjusted people instinctively feel that children should be protected from low-grade material. Nonetheless, when it comes to adolescent and adult works, there is then a cultural war over the meaning of fare that oscillates between Eros and Thanatos. Humans are violent and erotic beings—this will manifest itself in culture.
You either have Shakespeare’s King Lear, replete with Gloucester’s blinding scene with Cornwall, or you have the Marxist equivalent of the play, Edward Bond’s Lear, containing, as it does, Bond’s eye-removing machine. The latter is a counter-cultural testament to the utilitarianism of cruelty. The struggle is to decide whether you have one variant or the other; and what it means.
At a much lower cultural level, does a Marvel comic like the Black Panther subliminally preach what Obama’s wife really thinks about the American Union; or does the revolutionary English Puritan Solomon Kane, another Marvel title from Robert E. Howard touched up by Roy Thomas, exemplify the glories of an Aryan warrior? Howard’s own words in one of his stories—a language use which was excised from a version printed in the late ’60s in Czechoslovakia.
Wertham himself declined later to a stumbling apologia for comics fandom, at least in terms of the fanzines which they produced themselves. These obviously didn’t contain the violent, mastodonic, and sensual material of which he disapproved. This work, The World of Fanzines (1974), attempted to reconcile him with a middle-aged clientele for graphic novels that viewed him with considerable hostility. There was even a revenge against him from within the community of fandom, Doctor Wirtham’sComix and Stories (1979), which admitted that he was right.
For 250 years Shakespeare has been central to the Western literary canon. No other writer of any land or age has enjoyed popularity and renown on such a colossal and astounding scale.
Shakespeare is considered the greatest of all dramatists. Hundreds of editions of his plays have been published, including translations in all major languages. He is the most widely quoted author in history, and his plays have probably been performed more times than those of any other playwright. Academics have written thousands of books and articles about his plots, characters, themes, and language.
But, as entertainment or literature, I don’t care for him, and never have.
In his own day, Shakespeare’s work was appreciated and esteemed, and as a theater owner he became wealthy. But he was not the superman—”the Immortal Bard”—that subsequent adulation has made of him.
His reputation took off around 1769; actor David Garrick apparently had a great deal to do with it.
One cannot help but wonder whether simple affectation plays a significant role in perpetuating Shakespeare’s stupendous status.
How many people really know him, read him, and attend performances of his plays? Does Shakespeare genuinely move most people? Is his reputation wholly deserved, or partly the result of a mutually reinforcing “Shakespeare establishment”?
Mark Twain’s definition of a classic was “something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” A Shakespeare classic is a play you can safely avoid seeing or reading because no one else will own up to not having seen or read it either.
I am not utterly alone in my anti-Bardolatry. Important Shakespeare skeptics have included Alexander Pope, Voltaire, Lord Byron (“Shakespeare’s name, you may depend upon it, stands absurdly too high, and will go down”), George Bernard Shaw (who coined the term “Bardolatry”), and Jewish philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.
“During the course of his life,” we are told, “Tolstoy read Shakespeare in Russian, German, and English, but he never found a translation or an edition that convinced him that the Bard was anything more than a bombastic hack.”
Wittgenstein wrote: “I am deeply suspicious of most of Shakespeare’s admirers,” adding, when “I hear expressions of admiration for Shakespeare made by the distinguished men of several centuries, I can never rid myself of a suspicion that praising him has been a matter of convention.”
Ultimately, I dislike Shakespearean drama because the plays do not touch me, move me, or interest me.
My idea of a good Shakespeare play would be a movie, not 3- or 4-hours worth of poetry recitations. And if I did desire to attend a poetry recitation, I’d prefer Tennyson—Idylls of the King, perhaps.
Truthfully, the film version of Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons (1966-British) starring Paul Scofield as Thomas More and Robert Shaw as Henry VIII is close to what my idea of a Shakespeare play should be.
The Question of Political Correctness
In general, my dislike for Shakespeare has little to do with race or politics.
Nevertheless, updating or making storylines or settings “hip” or “relevant” in various ways, casting females in male roles (as early as 1899 Jewish actress Sarah Bernhardt played Hamlet), inappropriately casting nonwhites, and countless other methods of injecting propaganda into the dramas provides ample justification for skipping contemporary productions.
Elites ultimately chose radical reworkings such as these over simply tossing the plays onto the white cultural ash heap.
A high school English teacher fashionably hinted in the pages of the New York Times in 1988: “In an age of re-evaluation of the so-called classics, texts that glorify monarchy, sexism, patriotism and charity [sic], one wonders why Shakespeare still maintains a privileged status in American high schools.”
Of course, in Elizabethan times there were no actresses, so all women’s parts were acted by boys, whose lithe figures and unchanged voices made them ostensibly suitable as substitute females. So there were problems from the beginning.
Leaving modernism aside, drama critic Ivor Brown believed Shakespeare was ideologically plastic: “By the method of your citation you can make him Fascist or Jacobin with ease.”
Alternatively, CC writer Andy Nowicki assures us that “Most of the Shakespeare canon affirms a conservative worldview,” adding, “Coriolanus is undoubtedly the third most politically incorrect play of the Shakespeare canon, just behind the gleefully sexist Taming of the Shrew and the vigorously anti-Semitic The Merchant of Venice.”
Shakespeare’s references to Jews are typically derogatory; Jews have railed against and censored The Merchant of Venice since they obtained power over the West—The International Jew contains a discussion of systematic Merchant censorship that occurred a century ago.
In The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio teaches his fellow Italian Katherina (“as brown in hue as hazel nuts”) “submission.”
And in Othello, all characters take it for granted that Desdemona is debasing herself with the dark-skinned Moor.
This raises a question: Is Othello a Negro, or a North African Moor? There is debate about this, but a psychologically intriguing view is that of English essayist Charles Lamb (1811) that Othello’s color does not offend us in the reading, but only when shown on stage:
Nothing can be more soothing, more flattering to the nobler parts of our natures, than to read of a young Venetian lady of highest extraction, through the force of love and from a sense of merit in him whom she loved, laying aside every consideration of kindred, and country, and colour, and wedding with a coal-black Moor — (for such he is represented, in the imperfect state of knowledge respecting foreign countries in those days, compared with our own, or in compliance with popular notions, though the Moors are now well enough known to be by many shades less unworthy of white woman’s fancy) — it is the perfect triumph of virtue over accidents, of the imagination over the senses. She sees Othello’s colour in his mind. But upon the stage, when the imagination is no longer the ruling faculty, but we are left to our poor unassisted senses, I appeal to every one that has seen Othello played, whether he did not, on the contrary, sink Othello’s mind in his colour; whether he did not find something extremely revolting in the courtship and wedded caresses of Othello and Desdemona; and whether the actual sight of the thing did not overweigh all that beautiful compromise which we make in reading; — and the reason it should do so is obvious, because there is just so much reality presented to our senses as to give a perception of disagreement, with not enough of belief in the internal motives, — all that which is unseen, — to overpower and reconcile the first and obvious prejudices.
Charles Lamb by William Hazlitt, 1804
Settings and Imagination
Too many of Shakespeare’s plays have Latin European settings—Greece, Rome, Italy, France. I have a prejudice against fictional stories, plays, or movies with such settings, preferring American, English, “pan-Angle,” or Scandinavian locales.
No matter. Shakespeare does not evoke atmosphere or settings well. You’re expected to conjure them in your mind’s eye, based upon descriptions or allusions in the actors’ speeches.
[C]an this cockpit [the bare stage] hold
The vasty fields of France . . . ?
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies . . .
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts . . .
For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings . . .
Hamlet may serve as an example. Though set in Denmark, it never feels like Denmark.
Vivid sense of place is further destroyed by characters with names like Claudius, Polonius, Marcellus, Bernardo, Francisco, and Reynaldo. Fortinbras, described by one writer as “the cool-headed, balanced Norwegian who plans and acts in due proportion and at appropriate times,” eventually acquires control of Denmark.
The Winter’s Tale is set on the nonexistent seacoast and desert of Bohemia (the modern-day Czech Republic)—which has neither.
Old-time radio achieved imaginary evocations of atmosphere and setting extremely well; Shakespeare does not. Character perhaps, but settings no.
Yet Shakespeare did not play well on radio, either. It was attempted by both NBC and CBS (Columbia’s Shakespeare, aka The Shakespearean Cycle), in 1937, when they engaged in rivalry over the matter.
NBC’s version, Streamlined Shakespeare, is representative. The one-month series starred John Barrymore and his wife. Barrymore streamlined each play to 45 minutes, modernized some of the language to make it comprehensible to the radio audience, and employed long sections of narrative with only the major scenes dramatized.
These compromises demonstrate core problems with the plays: they’re too long, have archaic or incomprehensible lines, and lack much real drama.
The Need for Guides and Handbooks
Traditionally, the 37 plays are divided into three genres: tragedy (Hamlet), history (Henry V), and comedy (The Taming of the Shrew). Shakespeare, who died at 52, wrote about two plays a year; his use of sources would probably be characterized as plagiaristic today.
I own The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, a 2-volume Doubleday book club edition I’ve had for as long as I can remember. It contains all of the plays and poems, but no footnotes or explanatory material.
Simplifications or explanations of Shakespeare are indispensable to the student, and have existed in profusion for at least two centuries, from Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales From Shakespeare (1807), reducing the archaic English and complicated plots of 20 of the plays to simple narratives that children could read and comprehend, to modern Cliffs Notes and Monarch Notes summaries of the plays and poems.
Margaret Webster’s Shakespeare Without Tears (1942) (note the tacit acknowledgement of the problem in the title) is one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of books in a similar vein. Webster was a lesbian theater actress, producer, and director in England and America. Her 1943 production of Othello starring Negro Communist Paul Robeson in the title role ran for 296 performances on Broadway, the longest run by far of any Shakespeare play there to date.
Interpretive works are legion, indicating it isn’t possible to engage Shakespeare without mediation or guidance of a rather substantial kind.
His plays and poems, separated from us by a great gulf in time, conventions, and language, do not speak directly off the stage or page in classic, unadulterated form. Perhaps that explains, too, why so many odd Shakespearean productions are mounted.
The best handbook of this kind I happen to own is Frank W. Cady and Van H. Cartmell, eds., Shakespeare Arranged for Modern Reading (1936), illustrated by Rockwell Kent, 1,165 pages long. It contains no footnotes.
The editors of the book include every play, plus the poems Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, and the Sonnets.
For each play the characters are listed, every Act is included, and a great deal of the text is reproduced exactly, interspersed with summary paragraphs by the editors where original passages have been excised. At the end of each play there is a brief “Historical Data” section.
As Cady and Cartmell state in their introduction, “countless people have read no more of Shakespeare than was required in school.” It is therefore necessary to cut “through obsolete or abstruse passages to the heart of the universal Shakespeare,” presenting “a very great percentage of all that is wise and beautiful in his writing” while eliminating “extensive tracts of minor lines and passages” that “have little meaning for the average reader today.”
The English language, and the times, have changed so much since Shakespeare’s day that a glossary or extensive footnotes are necessary to adequately comprehend much of the text.
That’s why A. L. Rowse reissued the plays in modernized English—but without any footnotes or textual explanations—in the 1980s. He was roundly denounced for this by “the Shakespeare establishment” (as he castigated it).
His modern versions were easy to mock by way of isolated example (“Romeo, Romeo wherefore are you Romeo?”), but who can reasonably object to the replacement of “Who would fardels bear?” with “Who would burdens bear?” or “chirurgonly” with “surgically”?
Verse Drama: Shakespearean Plays Are Actually Poetry
Apart from archaism, what is the single most striking feature of Shakespeare’s plays? Surely the fact that most of the spoken lines are (literally) poetry—patterned speech—rather than the prose characteristic of modern plays, movies, and TV shows.
Moreover, it is Elizabethan poetry, which makes it even more inaccessible.
The poetry in Shakespeare’s plays, the lines of which are visually apparent on the printed page, consists mostly of unrhymed iambic pentameter (“blank verse”). Only a few plays, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, feature extensive rhyming.
Typically, only lower-class characters speak prose.
Richard II is the only play written almost completely in verse, and The Merry Wives of Windsor the only one written almost entirely in prose.
To illustrate, in Macbeth, the noble characters speak blank verse (poetry) while commoners speak prose. The witches speak another kind of poetry, which sets them apart—a form of trochaic tetrameter with rhymed couplets:
Liver of blaspheming Jew,
Gall of goat, and slips of yew
Silver’d in the moon’s eclipse,
Nose of Turk and Tartar’s lips,
Finger of birth-strangled babe.
Interpreting plays written in dramatic poetry requires the interpreter to take into account various features of poetic language in order to understand fully the meaning of any particular utterance. It is not enough simply to grasp the literal denoted meaning of what a particular character says. One needs also to attend carefully to the ways in which the various poetic qualities of the language evoke an emotional understanding in the listener of the utterance. This point is crucial. With many characters, what matters is not so much the literal meaning of what they say (or not just that), but the patterns in the language they use to express their thoughts.
Given the massive literature on Shakespeare’s plays, and extensive analyses, explanations, and simplifications of their plot lines and characters, it is astonishing that this aspect of his plays has been so rarely explained or elucidated.
The poetic structure creates a major barrier to easy enjoyment of the plays, particularly if students or audiences aren’t even aware of what verse drama is, or that Shakespeare wrote it.
Contemporary dramatic poetry does exist, though it is not popular. W. B. Yeats, Christopher Fry, and T. S. Eliot are 20th century exceptions who wrote verse dramas for the stage, though they are far more often read than performed.
For a long time, though, verse drama was the dominant form for plays in Europe. The English Renaissance saw the height of dramatic (stage) poetry in the English-speaking world, with playwrights such as Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, and Shakespeare all writing plays in poetic form.
How many fans of Shakespeare—never mind ordinary folks who happen to attend a Shakespeare play or movie—understand this? Do they really know what they’re listening to, even in a basic way?
I Don’t Hate Everything
Just as I like selected Shakespearean sonnets (e.g., Sonnet 29), I like certain passages from the plays, such as the dying John of Gaunt’s famous “sceptered isle” speech in Richard II, which sounds prophetic when read today (note the disparaging reference to Jewry):
Methinks I am a prophet new inspired
And thus expiring do foretell . . .
This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,
This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear’d by their breed and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home,
For Christian service and true chivalry,
As is the sepulchre in stubborn Jewry,
Of the world’s ransom, blessed Mary’s Son,
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.
Discrete passages from Shakespeare such as this are more effective when read than listened to in the course of a play as the author intended.
In addition, poems, due to their concentrated intensity, function best when they’re not overly-long—not book length, and not poured forth for hours on the stage as verse drama.
Charles Lamb asserted in “On the Tragedies of Shakespeare” (1811) that Shakespeare is best appreciated when read: “[H]earing anything spouted, withers and blows upon a fine passage . . . It may seem a paradox, but I cannot help being of opinion that the plays of Shakespeare are less calculated for performance on a stage than those of almost any other dramatist whatever.”
Was Shakespeare Homosexual?
It is striking how many homosexuals are members of the Shakespeare establishment—as producers, directors, actors, academics, etc.
Shakespeare dedicated two erotic narrative poems, Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594), to the 20-year-old Earl of Southampton.
He also wrote 154 sonnets divided into two main groups, 126 of which were addressed to a young man in the most endearing terms, the remainder to Shakespeare’s female mistress, the “Dark Lady,” who had dark skin, hair, and eyes.
This raises the issue of whether Shakespeare was homosexual or bisexual.
A 1965 commentary I possess gives various arguments supporting a negative response, concluding, “the best scholars are agreed” that Shakespeare was not homosexual.
One of the most intriguing suggestions is that in the first 17 sonnets, Shakespeare, acting as Platonic pedagogue to his “beautiful” friend, exhorts the young man to marry and beget children. A major argument of the poet is drawn from the parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14–30. Shakespeare contends that Southampton is improperly hoarding his beauty by not producing children, who would preserve that beauty for future generations.
In 1973 A. L. Rowse, a homosexual English historian turned Shakespeare specialist, maintained that Southampton, the male friend of the sonnets, was bisexual, but that Shakespeare was heterosexual.
Watching film versions of Shakespeare’s plays is a logical alternative to reading them or watching them on the stage.
In theory, a movie should enhance a play. Film should open the plays up, release them from the claustrophobic confines of the stage, add zest, make them more accessible, enjoyable, and understandable, and, most of all, supply the colorful settings so sorely lacking on stage.
Most filmmakers cut a considerable amount of the material—e.g., 55%. Many of the cuts are common in the theater as well.
But others are filmic in nature: rearranging, reducing, expanding, or interpolating scenes, replacing words with action, and so forth.
Like so many approaches to Shakespeare, however, it is evident that even under the best of circumstances fidelity to the original is attenuated.
Olivia Hussey & Leonard Whiting in Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968)
My earliest exposure to Shakespeare was homosexual Italian director Franco Zeffirelli’s movie Romeo and Juliet (1968). This is considered an exemplary cinematic version of a Shakespeare play.
The year before, Zeffirelli had directed Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in The Taming of the Shrew, and later he directed Mel Gibson in Hamlet (1990).
As leads, Zeffirelli cast two unknowns, Leonard Whiting, age 17, and Olivia Hussey, age 15.
The two actors were much more age-appropriate (re the play) than had been 43-year-old Jewish actor Leslie Howard or 35-year-old Norma Shearer in homosexual Jewish director George Cukor’s 1936 filmization.
Clark Gable, one of many actors considered for the part of Romeo in the latter movie, responded, “I don’t look Shakespeare. I don’t talk Shakespeare. I don’t like Shakespeare, and I won’t do Shakespeare.”
When I saw Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, I was too young to really understand Shakespeare, but I didn’t like the Italian setting, and thought even then that the mutual deaths at the finale—made even worse by Juliet’s “recovery” and subsequent suicide—were dumb, melodramatic, and unbelievable.
I’ve watched both Laurence Olivier’s filmization of Henry V (1945) and Kenneth Branagh’s (1989). I liked Branagh’s best. Both movies were exactly 2 hours and 17 minutes long.
In Branagh’s version, the text of the play was heavily cut, and extracts from Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2 were added.
Though in theory film should enhance Shakespeare, it is an impossible task to transform very long poems in monolgue form into action. It just doesn’t work. Shakespearean films are generally not box office successes; indeed, Branagh’s critically-acclaimed Henry V lost a lot of money.
Shakespeare’s plays are long—Hamlet, at a little over 4 hours unexpurgated, is the longest. Most are between 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 hours, uncut. If you’re not captivated by the monologues, they can be torture to sit through. Of course, material is often cut, but they still seem excruciatingly long.
Many of the problems previously mentioned are applicable to Shakespearean stage performances. In addition, actors often do not deliver their lines ideally—which, admittedly, is not easy to do. Shakespeare’s highly patterened poetic monologues sound extremely artificial.
This problem apparently existed even in Shakespeare’s day, for the playwright has Hamlet instruct actors within the play—sharply—about method prior to a performance in the castle, in a long passage at the start of Act III, Scene II (Lines 1-45).
Hamlet, speaking for the playwright, says, in part:
Do not saw the air too much with
your hand, thus, but use all gently;
O, it offends me to the
soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear
a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings
Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion
be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the word to the action;
O, there be players that I have seen play, and heard others praise,
and that highly, not to speak it profanely, that strutted and bellowed,
they imitated humanity so abominably.
Burton as Hamlet, 1964
I’ll discuss only one stage performance, that of Richard Burton in Hamlet (1964), since he is probably my favorite Shakespearean actor, it was an actual play not a movie, and at 3 hours and 11 minutes was relatively complete.
The Burton play was directed by homosexual actor John Gielgud (who was of Polish, Lithuanian, and part-English descent) at New York City’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. At 137 performances, it remains the longest-running Hamlet in Broadway history. Eileen Herlie repeated her role from Laurence Olivier’s 1948 film version as the Queen, and the tape-recorded voice of John Gielgud was heard as the Ghost.
Aside from Burton’s own performance, Hume Cronyn’s Polonius was particularly noteworthy and critically acclaimed. Unfortunately, he wore half-spectacles with a chain around his neck, and rather affectedly brandished a walking stick.
This was because the stripped-down production was conceived of as a dress rehearsal, so the actors wore contemporary garb. The set was extremely sparse, and props almost nonexistent. Apart from the inappropriate costuming and spare staging, it was a classic production—pure Shakespeare, so to speak.
There were cuts, as there often are in stage and film productions of Shakespeare’s works. Hamlet is his longest play; by comparison, Kenneth Branagh’s unabridged 1996 film is 4 hours long.
But a movie is not a play, Branagh indulged in what one critic called “stunt casting,” and the time period of the play was shifted forward to the late 19th century. So, in a sense Branagh’s film was “less pure” despite its length. (The longest prior screen adaptation of the play was the 1980 BBC made-for-television version starring homosexual actor Derek Jacobi, which ran 3 1/2 hours.)
A black-and-white film of the Burton production, shot on June 30 and July 1, 1964, was made using “Electronovision,” a method of recording live stage performances before real theater audiences with multiple video cameras and then editing them into a single film.
Incredibly, by contractual agreement all prints of the film were to be destroyed following its limited theatrical run. However, by chance, a single print was discovered in Richard Burton’s garage following his death, and his widow allowed it to be distributed on VHS, and later DVD.
A four-record Columbia Masterworks LP album set by the original cast was also released in 1964. However, it was recorded in a studio, and has so far not appeared on compact disc.
Many speaking parts in Shakespeare’s plays are extremely long and tedious. For Richard Burton particularly, there were many lines to memorize and perform live for more than three hours night after night. Nor was it simply a matter of remembering lines, but of imbuing the character with life (acting).
While watching Burton’s Hamlet, I followed along in the Complete Works. Every actor, including Burton, spoke Shakespeare’s lines word for word. No one flubbed their lines, either. The only difficulty I had was when an excision unexpectedly occurred, causing me to suddenly lose my place and have to search ahead to wherever they’d skipped.
Of Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy, Charles Lamb wrote in 1811:
I confess myself utterly unable to appreciate that celebrated soliloquy in Hamlet, beginning ‘To be, or not to be,’ or to tell whether it be good, bad, or indifferent, it has been so handled and pawed about by declamatory boys and men, and torn so inhumanly from its living place and principle of continuity in the play, till it is become to me a perfect dead member.
Compare his opinion to Richard Burton’s, recorded in his Notebooks:
[A]fter 10 weeks of playing Hamlet on the stage one’s soul staggers with tedium and one’s mind rejects the series of quotations that Hamlet now is. Has there ever been a more boring speech, after 400 years of constant repetition, than “To be or not to be”? I have never played that particular speech, and I’ve played the part hundreds and hundreds of times, without knowing that everybody settles down to a nice old nap the minute the first fatal words start.
Tolstoy thought King Lear‘s death-ridden conclusion was absurd. Again, I thought exactly the same thing about the death-riddled finales of Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. They’re ludicrous, not tragic.
Having seen Richard Burton’s perfectly nuanced performance in Becket (1964), the film adaptation of Frenchman Jean Anouilh’s play, I expected that he would not violate Hamlet’s stern admonitions to his Players. But, at isolated points in the play, even Richard Burton wasn’t able to adhere to the Prince’s advice.
I’m glad I saw Burton’s Hamlet, which came as close to a classical presentation of the play as one is likely to find (except for the lame costuming and ultra-spare staging), but it did not make me a Shakespeare fan.
I lack Richard Burton’s fortitude; my soul staggered with tedium long before even a single performance was over.
If you go see the universally praised Birdman , the story of an over-the-hill film star trying to make a comeback by starring in a Broadway play, I hope you enjoy yourself. I really do. That’s what movies are for—to provide enjoyment, a few hours of diversion. Genuine art transcends that shallow goal. It doesn’t really matter whether you enjoy The Brothers Karamazov ; but if you’re ready for it, it will change your life, and that (along with its horrific plot) can be a painful experience. E
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