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Death and the Avant-Garde in Our Neoliberal Nightmare

The Ontology of Tantrum —

On the eve of George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004 I happened to attend a performance of Sarah Kane’s 4:48 Psychosis at UCLA and, oddly enough, it was the perfect work of art to draw me back from the brink. I thought of this again after finding myself on the edge of an even deeper abyss following the debacle of November 6, 2016, when two recent productions served a similar purpose. I’m talking about Marissa Chibas’s The Second Woman at Bootleg, and Letter to a Man by Robert Wilson and Mikhail Baryshnikov at UCLA’s Royce Hall. Both productions managed to cast new light on our increasingly dire situation in the US, reminding me in very different ways of the ferocity with which our right wing elite has been waging war against the rest of us for the past fifty years. My experience of these two productions points me in the direction I believe the artistic community needs to travel, through a cultural landscape that is sure to be seeded with new dangers.

The Second Woman opens as an actress (Zohra), statuesque and beautiful, easing into middle age, has been passed over for the lead in Medea by Euripides. Anguished and humiliated—she has been offered instead the role of the Nurse—Zohra vents to a younger woman (Sofia), with whom she has an intimate and long-standing relationship. Old victories and exaltations are brought down out of the attic of Zohra’s memory and unpacked yet again. Sofia, also beautiful and also an actress, is kind to Zohra…but also a little distracted—she is departing soon on a long voyage, and has things to do. This is a departure, it turns out, that the two women have been anticipating for some time; now, on this evening, it has finally arrived. Zohra’s upset about Medea begins now to register as an act of crisis-engineering—surely you can’t leave at a time like this! Sofia remains firm yet gentle, joining in on a remembered Dionysian dance-ritual of passion, anguish and joy…but also dragging onto stage the large suitcase she has packed. The mystery of the bond between the two women looms larger now – what exactly is the relationship here? While Zohra enjoys Sofia’s rich and erotic connection to life the way a mother might, the intimacy is too egalitarian for Sofia to be her daughter. And yet the bond feels too complete to be the product of friendship. Finally, and at precisely the right moment, we come to understand that the two women are the same person—Zohra is saying goodbye to her youth.

Drawing on John Cassavetes’s film Opening Night and other influences, playwright Marissa Chibas achieves great poignancy with a disarming honesty, and a bare minimum of elements. Against the primary colors of Euripides in the background, the production draws on what critic John Bell perceptively named “avant-garde Classicism.” Deploying the elegant temporal doubling at its core, the play remains grounded also in dramatic realism. Bell coined the term “avant-garde classicism” in the context of a rich vein of post-AIDS,1990s theatre-making  (specifically the high-octane stage work of LA’s enfant terrible Reza Abdoh), but Chibas here draws on an important fore-runner of this aesthetic: the Spanish poet Frederico Garcia Lorca. Playing at the Bootleg in October with Chibas and Paula Rebelo in the two roles, The Second Woman is lit up with the charisma of duende, Lorca’s word for that ineffable quality that carries the transformative impact of art work, that intangible directness artists lose sight of at their peril. For Lorca duende is always linked to an awareness of mortality, a surrender to the inevitability of our departure from life that allows an embrace of a restorative mystery at the center of human being. Duende is also, by definition, transgressive—it is what gives artistic work its corrosive impact on accepted norms and value-structures. The disarming directness of the writing, and the remarkable performances director Zoe Aja Moore has elicited from the two actresses speaks to the power of duende at a time when our social world reels off of its axis from a chronic (and perhaps terminal) deficiency in the very same. The expressive force of these two women contemplating together the dark, Medea archetype, then gently surrendering to the inevitable course of things, reminds us again of our quiet magnificence, which is all wrapped up in our mortality.

A piece by Robert Wilson and Mikhail Baryshnikov that also played in October, at UCLA’s Royce Hall, explored another paragon of duende – the legendary dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. Based on a letter Nijinsky wrote to the founder of the Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev, the piece, Letter to a Man, was also, in a way, about aging. Running just over 70 minutes, Letter was Wilson at his most user-friendly, with Baryshnikov, framed a sharp-edged light box center stage, showing what a superbly-trained body can do when directed by a master of choreographic precision. Thankfully, all of the technical virtuosity on display was grounded throughout by Baryshnikov’s quiet physical grace. Pages could be written, for example, on the pathos Baryshnikov is able to convey through simple hand gestures, and all of this pathos was needed to infuse Wilson’s bold visuals with the capacity to move us. As you can probably tell, I have always found Robert Wilson’s work a little trying as well as brilliant. I have often encountered a law of diminishing returns that kicks in halfway through Wilson’s productions—the attention his striking imagery commands at the beginning of the evening starts to flag halfway through. Nothing sustains, perhaps, like a little narrative, and in Letter the meta-theatrical story of an aging Baryshnikov—what he can still do movement-wise…what he can express without movement… how it relates to the story of Nijinsky and the demonic Diaghilev—compensates, in a subtle way, for what Wilson usually sets aside.

Lauded by the Europeans (the Germans especially), Wilson’s impact has had to do with the aesthetic needs of a people determined, after being brutally betrayed by narratives of power, to live without teleology, without History and its grand narratives. From this perspective, Wilson accomplished in his dramaturgy what Brecht announced as part of his aesthetic aim—a dramaturgy devoid of the affective manipulations of bourgeois storytelling—but, of course, Wilson left out all the social politics. Wilson’s visual mastery and his embrace of the strategies of duration and reiteration were almost enough to compensate for the absence of narrative tropes, which in the actual world both the Nazis and the Bolsheviks had deployed to such devastating effect. But to me, at this remove decades later, the European embrace of the postdramatic has begun to seem like a colonial mindset—only possible for a population eager to negate its bad habits of mind, and to embrace instead the culture of an invading power. Our situation in the US today is quite different—for the past half century our political culture has been seized by a totalizing historical narrative that is so nihilistic it can be hard to miss, a right-wing narrative that goes by the deceptive name of neoliberalism in which the Market-place is believed to be a sacred and primordial aspect of divine nature who’s dictates we have no choice but to follow everywhere, in all things, no matter the cost. Viewed incorrectly as an aspect of nature, the marketplace becomes pre-political, and so any kind of market regulation is sacrilegious, a sin. In point of fact we know that markets, and how they are designed, are everywhere and always the product of states—fully political, in other words. The world is currently in the grip of this Ayn Rand nihilism, the psychosis of the pure isolated self we know best from our experiences as children pitching tantrums. In this ontology of tantrum we are reduced to a bare nub, separate from all others, isolated and apart, completely defined by the anti-social affects of greed and aggression, lost in a zero sum war for survival. What neoliberalism does is simply dress up this unattractive picture in the language of the entrepreneur, suggesting to the unwary that by embracing this psychosis with sufficient fervor they too might attain the seeming immortality enjoyed by business entities, brands, products, commodities. In the snake oil salesmanship of this demonic seduction it is never mentioned that this imagined freedom from death is simply an attribute of a thing that was never alive to begin with. The con job would be amusing were it not so effective (and let me underscore that my critique is aimed at how entrepreneurialism is used by neoliberal ideologues, NOT at entrepreneurialism per se.)

Implied above is the sobering reality that neoliberalism (also known as libertarian capitalism, free market capitalism, Reaganomics, Thatcherism, etc.) has to be understood as a religion, a system of belief on which the demonic beings now in control of our nation have staked their entire existence. The antidote we must locate has to be equally comprehensive in how it articulates another way to engage collectively with the basic facts of our mortality, which present themselves to each of us in narrative terms: the end of our story. As progressives, this means, we cannot afford to abandon narrative entirely; doing so surrenders the cultural field to the reductive and enslaving narratives of the right. A certain pose of sophisticated detachment must be jettisoned, along with the very idea that it is ever possible to be “a-political.” Rejecting easy resignation, progressives must counter neoliberalism’s nihilistic and reductive account of human life by underscoring always the basic facts of mortality, the covert knowledge we carry with us from childhood that life ends in a common mystery. Doing this is the key to combating the zombie appeal of neoliberalism and its subtle but pervasive promise to deliver the false immortality of the non-living. Here again we encounter the need for the kind of avant-garde Classicism displayed in these two theatre productions—in the US we can no longer afford to leave the myth-making to those who tell us there is no alternative to the death-in-life of marketplace fascism. Aging and mortality need to be engaged with as central experiences of being human, experiences which, paradoxically, bind us to one another in a social fabric first, and then, secondly, in a web of life made up of all the other living systems we depend on for our continued survival.

In November it was oddly comforting to absorb Nijinski’s madness among an audience of wealthy West Siders stunned by the shocking outcome in the 2016 presidential election. These are people no longer protected in the familiar ways by the civic structures of liberal democracy. We all now experience the vulnerability it has been easy to ignore when it applied only to those born without resources, outside of privileged identities and demographics. We are all in it now, and we can choose to hide alone or stand together to reclaim a common future. And to underscore the stakes I want to invoke the words Simone Weil laid down in her resistance to the Nazi madness in her brilliant essay “The Illiad: Poem of Might,” which cuts straight to the heart of things:

THE TRUE HERO, the real subject, the core of the Iliad, is might. That might which is wielded by men rules over them, and before it man’s flesh cringes. The human soul never ceases to be modified by its encounter with might, swept on, blinded by that which it believes itself able to handle, bowed beneath the power of that which it suffers. Those who dreamt that might, thanks to progress, belonged henceforth to the past, have been able to see its living witness in this poem: those who know how to discern might throughout the ages, there at the heart of every human testament, find here its most beautiful, most pure of mirrors.
Might is that which makes a thing of anybody who comes under its sway. When exercised to the full, it makes a thing of man in the most literal sense, for it makes him a corpse. There where someone stood a moment ago, stands no one. This is the spectacle which the Iliad never tires of presenting.

. . . the horses
Thundered the empty chariots over the battle-lanes
Mourning their noble masters. But those upon earth
Now stretched, are dearer to the vultures than
to their wives.

Confronted with our new politics of might, of pure domination, we will need to re-acquaint ourselves collectively with collective sources of vitality. Duende, the irreducible force that gives artistic work its charisma and its transformational impact, needs to become a basic principle of our politics as well.


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