King Lear on the Heath

In dark times the urgency to remember ourselves grows acute. As I absorbed the full shock of the levity with which we disposed of our democracy on Black Tuesday last, I realized that to gain both my bearings and my faith I had to lose myself in mundane daily tasks. On the farm I bottled a batch of cherry cider. I took apples to our pigs and hand fed them daily. I cooked dinner several nights running for our farm crew. I graded papers. I planned lectures. I finished syllabi for next semester – a next semester that for the first time in my life, I wondered if events in this country or the world would let me finish. I had to go to the library to see if it was remotely possible that they might have a copy of Euripides’ Trojan Women to show to my students at the end of the semester. They didn’t. But as I was browsing I discovered they had all of the BBC Shakespeare, so I grabbed the whole Henry VI trilogy (with its majestic language, fifty percent of which we now know attributable to Marlowe) and, by serendipity, the Olivier King Lear (with John Hurt as the fool and Diana Rigg as Regan).

The act of reading or even watching King Lear is, for me, as for Ben Johnson, extremely difficult. The family relationships and their destruction are both hair-raising, and far too close to home for my comfort. The constant references to “nothing”, the themes of nothing, of dark, of oblivion, of blindness, close in on the thoughtful viewer infiltrating the corners and crevices of one’s being until even that feels obliterated. I found the play so powerful this week, so painful, so terrible as it crescendos through palace, heath, and barren cliff. It seemed to me one single, long, animal cry of anguish. It is a paean to nihilism, to the anguished realization that our bearings in the world can be so misread, so illusory. Perhaps that is why I was drawn to Lear this week.

The stories we were told as children, those great ones that teach us to be ethical creatures, to respect one another, to cherish freedom, to love thy neighbor as thyself (God’s admonition both in Leviticus and through His son), their lesson can simply vanish in a blaze of tribal rage, avarice, and odium. What happens when these are gone? When all you have thought about one’s sense of justice, of fairness, of good faith, of charity and obligation, is so lightly discarded? Where does one go when the public announces that freedom of expression, of conscience, of consultation of faith, of an informed citizenry, of decency, can be sacrificed on the altar of a vulgar authoritarian? That the memory of that for which men died at Gettysburg, in Normandy, in Flanders Field, in North Africa, is to be held cheaper than the value of celebrity and money? We are now unmoored from those great men who sacrificed for us, or who had the courage to struggle for the belief in a people’s government, for if the ideas that triumphed on Black Tuesday are right, then Lincoln and Jefferson were wrong. If the ideas that triumphed on Tuesday are right, then Martin Luther King and Gandhi were wrong. If the ideas that triumphed on Tuesday are right, then Socrates, Abraham, and Mohammed are wrong. If the ideas that prevailed on that Dies Irae are right, then Jesus was wrong.

And so here many of us sit, unmoored suddenly from democracy in favor of autocracy; but that implies that we are now unmoored from one another. What bond of affection will hold us together if we just look to one who says “I am your voice?” For that is not democracy. Democracy is not about peace, it is not about order, it is about self-determination, which we have now abdicated. It is about bonds of affection not between the one and the many, but between and among all fellow citizens. And together, we were, in theory, tied by what Lincoln called “the mystic cords of memory”, a shared history of sacrifice and endeavor towards our Union, and all of its values both written and implied, that has now been shattered in a way none of us ever hoped to live to witness. Many of us feel violated and assaulted; personally, I feel as though my country has suffered an attack for more deleterious than anything any outside enemy of our country ever could or has devised. We have witnessed an authoritarian right wing coup, one we were warned about for many years from many quarters.

Perhaps that is why I was drawn to Lear this weak. Two of his children betray their father, despite his generosity, in spectacular fashion. The third, whose love is most sincere, he despises as an outcast. When he sees his error and realizes how deeply he has been betrayed and in turn damaged the one who most loved him, he is driven mad. Perhaps that is how some of us feel this week – for myself, having experienced a situation not unlike that of Lear, but in something of a reverse, I can understand the old man’s grief. People of generous temperament have a hard time understanding this, and perhaps they can’t. We wish everyone in the country well: universal access to food, health care, education, living wages, and a clean environment. We believe in shared risk and shared obligation as the only way to survive as a country, indeed, ultimately as a species; and this is not a belief built on hope, but simple observation that this is the only way, over the long haul, that we can move forward and thrive. I am quite willing to give to achieve that, because I have had a very rich life, in no small part because the state has, at key times, put its trust in my talents (and, I might add, been amply rewarded in return).

I understand that not all agree. People are stuck in their fears, their prejudices, their tribes, though it feels as though now, fellow citizens have now been turned into strangers. A wall of adamant has been erected that now among the citizenry. But to return to Lear: Betrayal. Nothing. Madness. Primal screams whose well-spring is the anguished sense of injustice. The protests are now primal screams of grief by people driven mad by the sheer horror of a party whose constituency believes in nothing – nothing save power. Nothing. For if the Constitution meant something to them beyond the second amendment, their leader would have been called out for his willful ignorance of the document and his pledge not to adhere to the norms of speech and press freedoms. If Christianity meant something to them they would not embrace a man who has called for torture, mass deportations (a crime against humanity), mocked the disabled, and vows to strip the sick and indigent of what little security they possess. If our history meant anything to them they would build on the best of it, not betray it and revert to its worst, most malignant instincts. They have betrayed this democracy, handed it over to monsters, and shown precisely what they value: “Nothing, nothing, nothing”. “Why, you are men of stones!”

Yes, it was a fine week for Lear.

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