Tuesday, April 28, 2009

War Music

This weekend I went to a preview of the phenomenal new ACT production War Music, a modern reinterpretation of the Illiad based on the translation (or retelling, really) of Christopher Logue. This is a very powerful piece of poetry, with a percussive meter that was used to good effect in the staging.

About a dozen or so actors took on about 40 different parts, and mostly wore identical costumes based on present-day military desert fatigues, with small variations (the Greeks had red berets, the Trojans blue -- the gods wore carnival masks). This made the complex story harder to follow than it had to be.

The gods were played in a comical style which was very effective in conveying their vanity and caprice, although this sometimes went overboard into farce (Poseidon wearing a diver's mask and flippers, for instance).

The set was a minimalist-modern set of risers, with a golden model of the city of Troy set at the back of the stage. I thought that the presence of the sea was indicated very effectively by the use of large billowing cloths. Lighting was also quite effective, especially the use of a multitude of bare bulbs like traced fire that descended during a battle scene. Despite the name, music was not a very prominent element in the show.

This play seems to have gotten rather poor reviews, and I'm not sure why -- perhaps because it isn't structured much like a traditional play. It's really a dramatic reading of a poem, and the poetry is the strongest element of the production. So, here are the opening verses. It seems the only way I can actually manage to slow myself down enough to give poetry a decent reading is by saying it aloud, or by retyping it.

Picture the east Aegean sea by night,
And on a beach aslant its shimmering
Upwards of 50,000 men
Asleep like spoons beside their lethal Fleet.

Now look along that beach, and see
Between the keels hatching its western dunes
A ten-foot-high reed wall faced with black clay
And split by a double-doored gate;
Then through the gate a naked man
Whose beauty's silent power stops your heart
Fast walk, face wet with tears, out past its guard,
And having vanished from their sight
Run with what seems to break the speed of light
Across the dry, then damp, then sand invisible
Beneath inch-high waves that slide
Over each other's luminescent panes;
Then kneel among those panes, beggar his arms, and say:

"Source, hear my voice.
God is your friend. You had me to serve Him.
In turn, He swore: If I, your only child,
Chose to die young, by violence, far from home,
My standing would be first; be best;
The best of bests; here; and in perpetuity.
And so I chose. Nor have I changed. But now--
By which I mean today, this instance, now --
That Shepherd of the Clouds has seen me trashed
Surely as if He sent a hand to shoo
The army into one, and then, before its eyes,
Painted my body with fresh Trojan excrement."

Before the gods appear
Something is marked:
A noise. A note, perhaps. Perhaps
A change of temperature. Or else, as now,
The scent of oceanic lavender,
That even as it drew his mind
Drew from the seal-coloured sea onto the beach
A mist that moved like weed, then stood, then turned
Into his mother, Thetis', mother lovelost face,
Her finger, next, that lift his chin, that push
His long, redcurrant-coloured hair
Back from his face, her voice, her words:

"Why tears, Achilles?
Rest in my arms and answer from your heart."

The sea as quiet as light.

Random connection: Christopher Logue is on record as calling war "a criminal activity", which echoes Charles Tilly's paper War Making and State Making as Organized Crime, found via recommendation by reader bhyde. Me talking about the similarities between governments and organized crime were what got me started arguing with Michael S, back on Mencius Moldbug's blog. It's all connected, somehow.


Michael said...

I do not deny that there are similarities between government and organized crime. In this, I follow Albert Jack Nock's thinking in "Our Enemy the State." If Al Capone's henchmen threaten a shopkeeper with unpleasant consequences if he doesn't fork over a percentage of his revenues, that's extortion; if the government does the same, it's taxation. If a thug holds you against your will or kills you, that's kidnapping or murder; if the government does it, it's incarceration or execution. And so on...

People accept government not as a positive good, but as a necessary evil. It is better that there be a near monopoly on the use of violent force than that everyone try to exercise it in his own interest. The latter would, as Hobbes famously observed, render the life of each solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

The reason for the necessary evil is that the government's use of violent force is (at least in theory) intended to protect private property and innocent life. When it is used in this way, it is acceptable; when it is not, it is unacceptable. In practice, the acceptable and the unacceptable are mixed. This situation is comparable to taking a powerful drug that has nasty side-effects, in order to ward off a nastier disease. As Paracelsus pointed out almost five hundred years ago, the only difference between medicine and poison is often in the dose.

mtraven said...

I do not deny that there are similarities between government and organized crime.

Oh good. Then why were you giving me such a hard time when I made this comparision?

The reason for the necessary evil is that the government's use of violent force is (at least in theory) intended to protect private property and innocent life. When it is used in this way, it is acceptable; when it is not, it is unacceptable.That's a fairly shallow theory of government, and contradicts (more or less) the first point.

Organized crime does not exist to protect innocence and private property; it exists to skim as much loot as it can off of productive activities; offering in exchange "protection" from violence, either its own or that of rival gangs. But even among actual organized crime, there is a spectrum from the sadistically violent, destructive, and parasitical, and the more mature sort that has a longer-term vision, the kind of parasite that realizes it won't benefit from killing its host, the kind that actually does provide needed services to a community. Government is just that tendency extended further. But just because there is some continuity between these forms of organized violence doesn't mean there isn't a vast difference between the worse and better forms. I am deeply skeptical of government but even more skeptical of the anarchist idea that eliminating it would bring about some kind of paradise; it would just offer a chance for probably-worse forms of collective violence to emerge.

Here's a post from a couple of years back defending government from a certain species of anti-government idiocy.

Michael said...

The organized criminal character of government emerges when it goes beyond its basic purposes of protecting private property and innocent life. That's why, for example, the sureties of Magna Charta (including my ancestor Robert de Ros) forced it upon king John, who was attempting to extend his powers beyond their traditional purposes and limits.

If the view that government exists to protect private property and innocent life is "shallow," then you must believe the American founders were shallow, because that was their opinion. Indeed, it was upon this point (and almost no others) that the arch-Federalist Fisher Ames, and the more-Jeffersonian-than-Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, agreed, and in almost identical words. It seems to me a good point of departure.

Unfortunately the thuggish character of our Federal government began to prevail under Lincoln, and although it fell into semi-dormancy after the Reconstruction (one of its most criminal episodes), it re-asserted itself under Wilson and has prevailed almost continuously since Franklin Roosevelt.

I disagreed with you at the time you made the point because it was to traditional and legitimate activiies of government in defense of private property and innocent life, such as hanging criminals and making war, that you referred in comparing government to organized crime. Now if you'd mentioned income taxation and redistribution of wealth as examples of government thuggishness, we might have had a different conversation.

mtraven said...

The organized criminal character of government emerges when it goes beyond its basic purposes of protecting private property and innocent life. That's exactly what I mean by shallow. The deeper view is that all government inherently partakes of the same nature as organized crime. Like humans and lampreys, they are related by common descent and share some broad architectural features, while still being vastly different.

It occurs to me that this superfically appears to contradict my stance in the other ongoing thread, where I argue for the importance of the rule of law and that our capos must be subject to it like the rest of us. But it isn't really. There are many things that distinguish good government from bad government. Income taxation doesn't come close; all governments must tax. Here are a few things off the top of my head:

- rule of law
- consent of the governed
- structural limitations on government power
- meritocracy, wealth redistribution, or other means of lessening the hold of static elites

You surely won't agree that all of these are desirata. But the larger point is that while all governments are a protection racket of sorts, one can strive to make them a rule-based, wealth-increasing, life-sustaining, and equitable protection racket. The natural tendency is probably in the other direction so this requires continual effort.

Michael said...

All governments must tax, but the power to tax - as Mr. Chief Justice Marshall long ago observed - is the power to destroy. A fair tax for the purpose of raising revenue is broad-based and low, and destroys as little as possible.

Politicians recognize the power of taxation to destroy, which is why they levy high taxes on things they wish to discourage, such as the consumption of tobacco or alcohol. You say you would like government to be "rule-based, wealth-increasing, life-sustaining, and equitable..." How is it wealth-increasing, then, to place a punitive tax on the creation of wealth? The only way a graduated income tax can be viewed is as wealth-destroying.

I believe that it is intentionally so, since that is clearly the result it brings about. Here's an interesting quotation from Reihan Salam, writing in The Spectator (London), 8 Nov. 2008:

"In the United States, those in the poorest 10 per cent earn 39 per cent of the median income. In Finland and Sweden, the poorest 10 per cent earn 38 per cent of the median income of the United States. That is, the American poor are earning about as much as the poor in two of Europe's most egalitarian societies. American inequality is an artefact of the extreme fortunes made by people at the top rather than extreme poverty at the bottom. Of course, Finns and Swedes benefit from excellent public services. But these public services are financed by regressive consumption taxes, mainly VAT. So poor Finns and Swedes are paying for what they get."

In other words, the relatively high taxes on incomes in those socialistic countries have served only to destroy high incomes, without raising the share of income earned by the poor at all - while social welfare benefits are delivered at the cost of high ad valorem taxes levied on on the staples of life, which fall hardest on those with the lowest incomes.

What is the point of the exercise? Is it that the bureaucratic/political elite finds life easier with fewer rich businessmen around to resist their wishes or challenge their status? Is it that sensitive souls in academia and journalism find this circumstance more aesthetic? For one thing is certain, it surely hasn't resulted in any improvement in the condition of the poor.