Came across an interesting quote in my reading of Slavoj Žižek's First As Tragedy, Then As Farce from Elfriede Jelinek, winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Literature — Americans would probably best know her through her 1983 book The Piano Teacher (Die Klavierspielerin), made into a movie in 2001, though Jelinek also has created a large body of work for the stage. The quote comes from an essay she wrote, "Ich möchte seicht sein" or "I want to be shallow":
I don't want to bring strange people to life in front of an audience....Characters on stage should be flat, like clothes in a fashion show: what you get should be no more than what you see. Psychological realism is repulsive, because it allows us to escape unpalatable reality by taking shelter in the "luxuriousness" of personality, losing ourselves in the depth of individuated character. The writer's task is to block this manoeuvre [sic], to chase us off to a point from which we can view the horror with a dispassionate eye.
It is Žižek's use of the quote, as well as the quote itself, that drew me into writing this month's essay. Žižek uses it approvingly as part of his discussion, in the initial section of his book, about how to usefully critique a society's ideology when one is both embedded in and saturated by that ideology (in the United States' case, the ideology of a rampant capitalism). He uses Jelinek's words to make this point:
Our most elementary experience of subjectivity is that of the "richness of my inner life": this is what I "really am," in contrast to the symbolic determinations and responsibilities I assume in public life....The first lesson of psychoanalysis here is that this "richness of inner life" is fundamentally fake: it is a screen, a false distance....One of the ways to practise [sic] the critique of ideology is therefore to invent strategies for unmasking this hypocrisy of the "inner life" and its "sincere" emotions. The experience we have of our lives from within, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to account for what we are doing, is thus a lie — the truth lies outside, in what we do...."Stories we tell ourselves about ourselves" serve to obfuscate the true ethical dimension of our acts. In making ethical judgments, we should be story-blind...
There is so much richness here, it's hard to know where to begin sampling it. Let me begin with something personal as a playwright. More than once, after readings of one or another of my plays, I'll get responses/suggestions that I should give more "backstory" to the characters ("I'd like to know more about..."). Most of the time I do not give my characters "backstory" because I find such stuff boring in plays and usually dramatically inert (and I always forget the backstory, or forget to apply it, as the action moves forward). This doesn't mean I don't give my characters antecedents for the action I put them through on the stage, but I try to keep such things minimal and forward-moving — no reminiscences for the sake of a reminiscence (when a character intones "Do you remember when...", I sigh).
I make that aesthetic choice for a reason: the stage is a "present-tense" zone to me, even if the subject matter touches on past history, because when the lights go up I want the audience plunged into media res or immediately confronting the Passover question of why is this night different from all other nights — the equivalent of streaking down the runway to vault the saddle at top speed. Again, this doesn't mean that there aren't references to past things to explain present actions, but I try to make that "past" as present-tense as possible so that flow, voltage, uncertainty do not get interrupted in the work of carrying the audience along.
If my actors want to create backstory for themselves, if that helps them do their work, then I have no problem with their doing that. I also say in response, when they ask me if this or that element makes sense for their characters, that as long as it makes sense to them and doesn't impede what I want to accomplish in the play, be my guest. I'm just not that interested in the process to care about what comes out of the oven.
But, being who I am, I also mull over what seems to be this constant in commentary about my work and try to understand better why I write backstory-thin. In the end, I think the reason I don't embellish my characters with confected biographies is that it feels false to my understanding, after 60 years on the planet, that what we think of as a "human being" really has no essence to it and is made up as we go along.
More to Žižek's point and it's connection to writing plays: the real question is not "What is a human being?" but "What is a human being today in the United States?", "today" and "United States" being the larcenous capitalist regime under which we struggle. The answer to the question is mediated by everything that this regime requires us to be in order to produce the profit and inequalities it is engineered to create. Thus, Jelinek's "psychological realism" is not a description of some "essential" quality of being a human, inherent and enduring, but an ideology, a story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to justify the power relationships in our society (otherwise known as "the way things are," with that tone of fatefulness about it, as if we cannot change them).
But why does Jelinek find this "realism" repulsive? She first says that it "allows us to escape unpalatable reality." But she doesn't mean "reality" in some generalized ahistorical quasi-philosophical sense but a contingent reality, in a place and time — that is, of the regime of our particular form of capitalism. And is our reality "unpalatable" here and now? My answer would be "yes."
The mechanism of this escape for Jelinek lies in the "shelter of the 'luxuriousness' of personality." "Personality" is a focus so narrow that it isolates the human being into "individuality" and "identity" and then further into "personal responsibility," and thus nullifies (or at least cheapens) all the "extra-individual" forces that connect that individual to history and contingency and, in the case of capitalism, captivity.
A case in point. The most recent Harper's has an article on a group called "Underearners Anonymous," which uses the 12-step program structure of Alcoholics Anonymous to "help" people come to grips with their depressed economic conditions — as if "force of will" or "the power of personal dream" could bend uncontrollable conditions to individual advantage. This is a case where "personality" ends up being used for self-blame, with its resulting political quietism, when it would be more healthful personally and socially to turn that disappointment and anger outward in political action to change the rotted and rigged system that has put them where they are.
To lose "ourselves in the depth of individuated character" is an ideological practice, then, with this corollary: writers who write so that audiences lose themselves in "individuated character" are ideological writers, whether they consider themselves that way or not. This is not a judgment about ability or integrity or good faith or anything like that — it is descriptive of a role, of a practice, so that one can write with as full an understanding of one's actions as possible, which is what Žižek suggests in the extended quote above: "'Stories we tell ourselves about ourselves' serve to obfuscate the true ethical dimension of our acts. In making ethical judgments, we should be story-blind..."
Does this require writers to write with the kind of "dispassionate eye" that ends up creating boring theatre, full of Sam-Beckett-like flat-screen personages engaged in esoteric and opaque action/non-action? I think it argues for the opposite, for a different kind of richness than what passes for "richness of character" these days, where the personages that the writer puts onstage are nodes on a large net called "the world as it is today," not isolated worldlets hovering in singular orbits.
It is also important to remember Žižek's point about "critique" and its relationship to ethics: if we write from this different sense of fullness, and if we write with a kind of "Zen amnesia" — that we forget what we know in order to find out what we know, what Jelinek calls "shallow" — and if we write with the intention to emancipate people from this brutal failure called capitalism, then we will write ethically.
I look forward to hearing from you.