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Saturday, 28 January 2006

Conor Cruise O'Brien


Conor Cruise O'Brien / A World Falling Apart?
This keynote address at ISPA's International Congress was delivered on June 21, 1994 in Sydney, Australia. photo The world has been falling apart for a very long time, if that reflection can be of any consolation to us in the late 20th century. The poet Horace wrote about the phenomenon, a little more than two thousand years ago. According to him, if the world were to fall apart, the ruins would leave the man who was just and tenacious of purpose in a dauntless condition: Imparvium ferient ruinae.
To be fair to the poet Horace, he was not engaging in any personal heroics. He never affected to be especially just or tenacious of purpose. He acknowledged that he had run away from the battle of Pharsalia, leaving his little shield behind him, non bene: not very creditably. Horace was an honest man, except when he was writing for a governmental commission and to governmental stipulation. The ode about the world falling apart - Si fractus illabatur orbis - was official business: a state ode. The man who was just and tenacious of purpose was not the poet or a model either for poets or ordinary mortals but Caesar Augustus the top politician of the age. Augustus had actually experienced the world coming apart: the terrible terminal convulsions of the Roman republic, the assassination of Julius Caesar and then the division of the Roman heritage into an eastern and a western empire. Fragments of all those ruins had struck Augustus but had not daunted him. More than that, Augustus personally had restored the shattered world. He now presided over a united Roman empire, embracing the whole of the Mediterranean world. What history had deconstructed had been reconstructed by the will and skill of a true Roman hero.
That at least was the picture which Horace and his fellow eulogists sought to present. There was, no doubt, too much in it of what a later age would call 'the cult of the personality' - although the Augustan eulogists had better material to work on than most of their successors, at diverse courts and under diverse administrators over the next two thousand years.
There are two points about the Augustan example that should, I believe, be of abiding interest to us. The first is that worlds that fall apart can come together again. It is true also that the world that comes together can fall apart yet again as happened to the Roman empire under the successors of Augustus. Yet the Roman empire, though politically extinct, lived on in the culture of all its successive states. The judaeo-hellenic culture which had permeated the empire was transmitted fruitfully to the successor states. And the successors came to include nations - like the United States and Australia - whose very territorial basis of existence was entirely unknown to the contemporaries of Augustus.
When a world falls apart, that is not necessarily the end of the world.
The second point I want to make arising out of the Horatian odes, will be a central theme of this address. This is the intimate connection between the performing arts and the falling apart and coming together of worlds.
I don't know that poetry would be thought of today by most people as being among the performing arts. Yet historically it has been perhaps the most basic and the most powerful of these. It has been felt to possess quasi magical faculties of exultation and degradation. It was meant to be performed, that is to say spoken aloud, declaimed in ceremonies of state as were Horace's state odes, and the prophetic passages in Virgil. In short poetry had from of old, and has retained into modern times, certain political functions.
From very ancient times the poet had been a praise-singer a celebrator of ancestors, heroes, chiefs and dynasties. Poetry was associated with acting out, with song and dance and ritual celebration. Epic poetry was the source and stuff out of which drama was made. All this was part of a living process of holding the world together: a familiar established world home to the poets whom it nourished and who nourished it. But poetry could also anathematise, delegitimise, help to shatter worlds. In celebrating Rome it could call down fire on Alexandria and vice versa of course. One might say: who remembers the vice versa, the poetry of the losers? None of that entered the classical canon directly, but something of it can still be heard in the doom-laden melancholy of certain passages of Virgil which some have traced to the poet's Celtic roots. The poetry of defeated peoples has probably played a significant part in the break up of empires, the falling apart of worlds.
In considering this rather difficult theme of the role of the performing arts in history it would be inappropriate to take too narrow a view of what the performing arts are. It is certainly appropriate, under modern conditions, to restrict the application of the term for certain purposes to certain well-defined categories, for professional and legal reasons. But in the mysterious interactions of world history such rigid compartments do not hold in practice, however strongly they may be defined in law and in social convention.
Is politics among the performing arts? I believe it always has been, in some of its aspects, and that the importance of these aspects is now increasing with the increasing dominance of television. We can hardly forget - in this context - that a professional movie actor recently played the part of President of the United States in the White House itself for a run of two full terms.
On stage, Ronald Reagan made like a superb President of the United States. Off stage, he seems to have spent most of his time either asleep or reminiscing about old movies. But that didn't worry his audience, so long as his performance on stage was giving satisfaction. Who cares how an actor spends his time when he is resting? Some of the non-histrionic aspects of the Presidency got a bit neglected during this period. There was that budget deficit, for example, but that was something for Reagan's successors to worry about.
Reagan was always master of his script, and judged the merits of the script solely by audience responses. When he found the audience tiring of the old script as he did by half way through the second term of his show, he got himself a new script, dropping the Evil Empire stuff, since it no longer played, and provided himself with a new role as peacemaker extraordinary. The new role happened to coincide with the beginning of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Reagan improvised a finale in which he played the part of the man who had planned it all.
The fusion of showbiz and politics has never been as thoroughly exemplified as by the Presidency of Ronald Reagan but some element of showbiz is inseparable from all political not least from the American Presidency. Showbiz politics can be competent or the reverse. George Bush was as deficient in histrionic skills and intuition as Ronald Reagan was proficient in the same. And that deficiency in Bush was largely responsible for his failure to win a second term. Dramatically speaking, the highlight of the Bush Presidency was the Republican Convention of 1992, at Houston, Texas in the run-up to the Presidential election. And that show was a turkey. Like all party conventions in the late 20th century, this one was planned as you would plan a theatrical showpiece, but for a political purpose. It was aimed at the television audience, in the hope that its impact would swing the November elections to the Republicans.
The only trouble with that was that the performance was poorly planned. As administrators of the performing arts, President Bush's advisers were well below the standards upheld by the members of your association. The theme of that disastrous political production was 'family values'; which was wrongly felt to be sure-fire stuff. This is a theme that needs to be handled gently and with sensitivity. At that Convention they blared out a crude version of the subject with an odious exhibitionism that put off even people who were basically on their side while outraging those who were not. Also they forgot - relative to the issue of abortion - that while 'pro-life' people are a lot noisier as a lobby, pro-choice people are much more numerous especially among women. The Houston Convention tilted the women's vote quite heavily against the Republican ticket and left the Democrats in control of the Presidency and both houses of Congress. Republican politicians running for election or re-election in this year's mid-term elections turn pale at the very mention of family values and shamelessly desert pro-life for pro-choice.
Good showbiz can have a strong influence on democratic politics as witness FDR's fireside chats and Kennedy's `Camelot'. But I know of no bit of good political showbiz in this decade that has had as much influence over democratic process and policy making as has been exerted by the miserably poor showbiz of that Houston Convention. In my book, this is a case of good political results coming from bad political showbiz.
Let me now return from those modern instances to the vaster theme of the performing arts in history. It is not possible to say with certainty whether the results of the performing arts aspect of social and political history have been on balance benign or malign. I opt personally for benign, as I shall show in my conclusion. But I confess this is an act of faith rather than the result of analysis. Such matters may well be beyond the range of human computation. In any case, those of us who claim that in general the role of the performing arts - in the widest sense - have been benign have quite a lot to explain away. Over long periods of time, the favoured and sanctioned forms of spectacle have been bloody and cruel. Human sacrifice has been a performing art in many cultures. The devouring of living human beings by wild beasts was the spectacle that played to packed audiences in the Colosseum under the patronage of the later Roman emperors.
Later forms of cruel spectacle were more didactic in intent. There was the Spanish Inquisition with its acts of faith, autos da fe, the public burnings of Jews and heretics for the salvation of souls and the edification of the faithful. In the Protestant culture, trials and burnings of witches appeared to satisfy similar needs. Nor did the Enlightenment bring an end to all the bloody charades though it did discourage the religious varieties. In 1793 the show trials of the King and Queen of France followed by their public execution, constituted the central ritual of the transition from monarchy to republic. Human sacrifice had returned, but this time to the accompaniment of the rhetoric of the Enlightenment. And it returned again in our own century with rhetoric from the same original sources, in Stalin's show trials and Stalin's terror.
It can reasonably be argued that the general tendency, in the West at least, has been on the whole towards gentler forms of theatre and ritual. Very early within judaism, human sacrifice was outlawed a transition reflected in the story of Abraham's and Isaac's sacrifice. In later judaism and in christianity the sacrifice became purely symbolic. As for the Colosseum, its excesses aroused such general disgust as to discredit the late-Roman culture from which it came - rather like the Houston Convention if on a larger scale. Things like the Spanish Inquisition and witch-hunting are now universally repudiated by all the christian churches. The admirers of the French Revolution generally repudiate the Terror as an aberration. Stalin's terror was repudiated by the communists themselves, even before Soviet communism itself collapsed.
So we may reasonably feel that, given a chance, human beings have a tendency to behave better, and to devise more refined forms of spectacle, theatre and ritual. With this trend of thought, certain lines of Shakespeare come almost automatically to mind: Blood has been shed ere now `i' th'olden time / Ere humane statutes purged the gentle weal.
Yet the words carry a warning within them from their dramatic source. Shakespeare with cosmic irony, puts those benevolent sounding words into the mouth of a Scottish serial murderer, whose very name is to this very day unmentionable in theatrical circles.
By a cruel paradox, it was much easier a hundred years ago than it is now to have a firm faith in the benevolent power of progress. In between we have had the two World Wars, Gulag, the Holocaust. After all that, faith in progress remains possible but it has necessarily grown more tentative and more humble.
I should like at this point to consider the relationship of the performing arts, and of one performing art in particular, to the life and career of Adolf Hitler. This is quite a disturbing relationship but I think you will find that it is instructive. To see how it works, we need to look at it in a little detail.
During the Cold War and as a result of its necessities it became extremely fashionable to see the Nazi period as a unique aberration. Aberration is often a comforting concept, historiographically speaking. We have seen its usefulness already for admirers of the French Revolution, in coping with the disturbing phenomenon of the Terror. In reality the Terror was not an aberration but inherent in the revolutionary process from the beginning, as Edmund Burke had predicted two years before it began. And the Nazi phenomenon was not exactly an aberration either but a product of the culture of 19th-century Europe.
It is true that it was a product that would not have taken the special and sinister form it did, without the tremendous pressures of the First World War, and specifically of imperial Germany's defeat in that war. It was a product, that is to say, both of the Europe to which imperial Germany had been central and of the falling apart of that world in 1918.
A common western stereotype of the Cold War period represented Adolf Hitler retrospectively as a semi-literate roughneck devoid of culture. This is a dangerous trivialisation. We underestimate Hitler's baleful power if we fail to see that he was a highly intelligent, self-educated person growing up in a highly civilised environment, in an age of mass diffusion of culture. He was familiar with Friedrich Nietzsche's ideas and grasped the general thrust of that in Nietzsche which the academic exponents of `gentle Nietzschianism' in the Cold War period were to seek to explain out of existence. What is more directly relevant to our subject here this afternoon, Hitler was a devotee of one of the performing arts: opera, and in particular the operas of Richard Wagner. Not a dabbler, a real devotee. It is recorded of him that he could whistle the whole score of Die Meistersinger 'in a penetrating pizzicato.'
Wagner's operas, and The Ring cycle in particular, play a crucial role in the transition from imperial to Nazi Germany, and specifically in the career of Adolf Hitler. It was a Wagnerian image that supplied the Leitmotif of the opening phase of Hitler's political career, in 1919. The image was that of the Dolchstoss, the stab in the back that brought down the hero Siegfried in The Ring. It was not Hitler who had been responsible for the politicisation of that Wagnerian image, that had been the work of the military oligarchs who had ruled Germany in wartime in the name of the Kaiser. After the failure of the last great German offensive in the spring of 1918, the warlords knew that the war was lost but they refused to accept the blame for the defeat. They took refuge in denial and Wagner came to their aid.
According to the Wagnerian myth of the Dolchstoss, Germany had not been defeated at all. She had been stabbed in the back just like Siegfried. Heroic Germany was the victim of treacherous beings of an inferior order, communists and Jews. That theme was popularised even before the defeat: during the summer and autumn of 1918. But after the war, with Germany facing a revolutionary threat, the theme of the Dolchstoss was even more immediately relevant than before. The generals commanding the reduced armed forces that were left to Germany by the Treaty of Versailles hired agitators to spread the word of the Dolchstoss, especially among the working class. One of these Wagnerian agitators was Adolf Hitler.
In the immediate aftermath of the War, Hitler had been content as it were to whistle his Wagnerian tune, at the bidding of others and for their benefit. But by 1923, Hitler was beginning to have political ideas of his own. The concept of the Dolchstoss was always congenial to Hitler even when he was paid to spread it and it was fundamental, in a different form, to his new plans in the new phase. The leadership of post Versailles Germany, in the Weimar Republic, including Hitler's former employers, were to be exposed as accessories-after-the fact in the murder of Siegfried. Hitler would expose them by organising a revolt against the Diktat of Versailles. By crushing that revolt, the Weimar Republic and its military establishment would demonstrate their continuing complicity in the Dolchstoss. Hitler in contrast would appear as Siegfried Redivivus. This was the train of thought that led to the political event known in history as the Bierkeller Putsch of 1923 in Munich.
In the case of Hitler, the phrase 'the cult of Wagner' is not a mere figure of speech. This was a cult in which he believed as fanatically as any devotee has ever believed in supernatural revelation. The depth of his commitment to the cult is apparent from what he did early in 1923 on the eve of the most important decision of his life to date: that of whether or not to head a rebellion against Versailles, in Munich. In preparation for that decision the daemonic devotee repaired to the great shrine of his faith, at Bayreuth, in northern Bavaria. There he consulted the oracles, custodians of the shrine, Winifred Wagner and Houston Stewart Chamberlain. Winifred was the composer's daughter-in-law; Chamberlain the great English apologist for imperial Germany. Both were passionate nationalists; Chamberlain had been one of the first proponents in the service of the generals of the myth of the Dolchstoss, in the closing months of the First World War. Both warmly encouraged the project Hitler was considering. Hitler returned from Bayreuth with his mind made up.
The Bierkeller Putsch of 1923 has been trivialised in retrospect, like so much in Hitler's career. It has been depicted as a ludicrous failure. This is to misunderstand its nature which falls within the performing arts, in their larger sense, and is also near to those arts in their narrower sense. It was never intended as a serious revolt in the literal and military sense. It was a symbolic revolt, resembling to that extent, and in that respect, the Easter Rising seven years before in Dublin, Ireland and indeed it also resembled that earlier and distinct revolt in being closely linked to the performing arts. The Wagner of Dublin's Easter Rising was W. B. Yeats. His virulently nationalist play, Cathleen Ni Houlihan, performed in 1902 by Maud Gonne, had been an inspiration for the generation of the rebels of 1916. This was a thought that troubled Yeats on his deathbed when he wrote: Did that play of mine send out / Certain men the English shot?
It probably did. In any case, both revolts were symbolic of sacrificial, ritual acts. As in the case of that earlier revolt, the repression of the one in Munich was expected and, in a sense, desired. The repression would recoil against its perpetrators and bring eternal fame to the defeated rebels. In Munich, Hitler acted out a variant on the theme of the Dolchstoss spreading wider the web of guilt, to envelop not only Jews and communists, but the entire Weimar establishment seen as accomplices of Jews and communists.
On the eve of the 1923 Putsch, Hitler was hardly known in Germany outside limited circles in Bavaria. By the time he was released from prison for his part in the Putsch he was a national figure and a hero of the large volkisch component of German society. Less than ten years more of growing notoriety would bring him to absolute power. And after his release from jail, as on the eve of the act that had taken him there, Hitler went to Bayreuth, this time to receive the congratulations of the custodians of the national and operatic shrine that linked the old imperial with the nascent National-Socialist Germany.
Hitler's Wagnerianism was no passing phase; but a main inspiration for his frightful vision and apocalyptic mission in Wagner and Nietzsche - antagonistic though the two men became - Hitler found a theme that was common, and to his purpose. This was the theme of higher forms of human life being dragged down and choked by lower forms. Hitler's remedy was one of ghastly simplicity: to exterminate what he regarded as the lower forms. The Holocaust was to prepare the way for the resurrection of Siegfried and the advent of the Superman.
I have dwelt on the Wagner-Hitler connection because it is one of the most remarkable, one of the best documented, and at the same time one of the least known, examples of the interaction of the performing arts with history. It also, obviously, represents the ultimate in destructive malignity. It is the most chilling passage in European cultural and social history. I stress the European. Wager and Nietzsche form a major part of our common European culture: the Nazi movement grew out of European history just as the French Revolution did. I have no more thought of blaming contemporary Germans for Nazism than of blaming contemporary Frenchmen for the excesses of the French Revolution. And I have the greatest respect for those in our time, whether in Germany, France, or elsewhere who, as your ISPAA past-President, Eckhard Heintz, well put it in his closing remarks to you last year: 'Stand up and fight against any illiberal, hostile or illegal act whatever.'
The performing arts, like the rest of what Burke calls 'our most mysterious nature', have inescapably their malign aspects. In the time that remains to me, I should like to look at some of their benign potentialities, though even these are not lacking in ambiguities.
First, however, I should like to make some distinctions in the matters of worlds falling apart and coming together again. That a world should fall apart is not necessarily a malign phenomenon, nor is its coming together necessarily a benign one. Also our ideas as to whether the world is falling apart or coming together have fluctuated with remarkable velocity, even in the course to date of our present decade. In the beginning of the decade it was being influentially asserted that the world was coming together at such a rate that western values, such as democracy, capitalism, the rule of law and freedom of expression, would soon be universally accepted and history would have come to an end. Then, by about 1992, it began to be noticed that Francis Fukuyama's confident diagnosis of the end of history hardly seemed to fit the actual conditions prevailing in places like the former Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union. The idea of coming together ceased to be fashionable and that of falling apart came to enjoy a new vogue. Many commentators quoted as prescient the famous lines of W. B. Yeats in 1919: Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold. / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
Certainly Yeats's insights are a lot more profound than poor Mr Fukuyama's. Yet even Yeats's powers of prescience should not be exaggerated. Anarchy was widespread in 1919, and Yeats's forebodings of a horrible future were fully justified, yet what was coming, horrible though it was, did not exactly take the form he feared. It was not 'mere anarchy' that was loosed upon the world between the Wars, it was centralised tyranny in the shape of the two most oppressive state systems the world has ever known. Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Russia. Those were what came together out of the period of anarchy and in response to it. And it would be prudent to allow for the possibility that what may now be coming together in the former Soviet Union may not be much more attractive than either of the two sets of conditions that preceded it: the centralised oppression and the anarchy.
As A. E. Housman wrote: The troubles of our proud and angry dust / Are from eternity and shall not fail.
The Housman doctrine cannot be proved but has yet to be refuted. History contains an impressive accumulation of evidence in its support; but history, as we know, covers only a tiny span of the collective experience of the human race. The performing arts themselves, in the forms of dance and song and ritual, are certainly much older than history and human life on earth is certainly a success story, if of a disconcerting kind, as is virtually everything about us. Our species, whatever its defects, has been exceedingly good at survival even to the extent that the very abundance of our survival now threatens the planet we have been crassly exploiting since the opening of the industrial period.
We may now perhaps be coming to an end of that particular destructive phase. The United States, under Presidents Reagan and Bush, had a laissez-faire approach toward the population explosion, with the approval of the Vatican and in alliance with it. Under the Clinton administration, there has been a dramatic shift in the position of the United States towards what is perhaps now the greatest question on earth: population control. In papers presented by the United States to the New York Preparatory Conference for the World Conference on Population due to take place in Cairo later this year, President Clinton reversed the policy of his two predecessors, thereby incurring the deep displeasure of the Vatican. The United States will now, it seems, actively support the adequate international funding of the dissemination of information about and means to use contraception and safe abortion. With that shift in the position of the United States, the whole balance of international forces on this matter is altered. There is now for the first time a sense of purpose in the international community, towards checking the ruinous growth in population which represents - to take only one example - the greatest threat to the future of the new South Africa, along with most of the Third World.
In this great and benign shift in attitudes to population, the performing arts in their wider sense have played a major though paradoxical part. They did so through the ironic effects of a tremendous flop: that Republican Convention of 1992 in Houston. That showbiz failure accomplished exactly the opposite of what its planners intended. The devout may see in all that the hand of a great stage manager in the sky. The rest of us would like to think they are right.
I spoke just now of rituals that are older than history: rituals of conflict-avoidance, mediation and conciliation, for example, that may well have played a significant part, over many ages, in the survival of our species. Traces of some of these have lingered into our own time. There is for example the sacred mediator known as the 'Leopard Skin Priest' whose procedures have been analysed by the South African anthropologist, David Brokensha. There are the Olboni men of western Nigeria whose speciality is the management, by appeasement, of witches: a more civilised method than that practised by the Puritans of New England in the 17th century. And right here in this continent, the Cambridge anthropologist, Nicholas Paterson, has described the extremely complex fire ceremony known as buluwandi, practised by the Walbiri people of central Australia and directed toward the harmless release of hostile tendencies, the working out of tensions, by acting them out.
In modern international life, the United Nations serves similar purposes. More than twenty years ago, I wrote a book about the United Nations in its `performing arts' aspect. The book is called United Nations: Sacred Drama. The United Nations is seen as a theatre in which people improvise versions of contemporary history, posture before the world, let off steam, and occasionally devise rituals that can save the peace, most often through saving the faces of powerful people.
Some people are understandably impatient with this approach of the study of the United Nations. They want the United Nations to impose a general peace and, since it has never been in the least equipped to do anything of the kind, they complain about its failure. This is to miss the point. One of the most useful things about the United Nations is its well demonstrated capacity to be seen to fail. This capacity is useful to world leaders and also, on occasion, to the preservation of the peace.
The classic case in this genre is President Eisenhower's handling of the Hungarian crisis in 1956. Eisenhower and Dulles had been calling on the eastern Europeans to revolt, and implying that the United States would come to their aid if they did. Then the Hungarians actually did revolt. Eisenhower decided not to come to the aid of the rebels, since that would risk world war: a practical calculation, if a belated one. But Eisenhower could not explicitly acknowledge that he was abandoning the Hungarians. This is where the United Nations came in. Eisenhower took the case to the United Nations and the theatre of the General Assembly was filled with the rituals of condemnation while - offstage - the revolt was being crushed.
The United Nations can provide nothing on its own except blessings and curses. If the United States had decided to intervene in Hungary, the United Nations would have blessed that enterprise as it had done in the case of Korea and was to do again over Desert Storm. As the United States was not intervening in Hungary there was no enterprise to bless, and all the United Nations could provide was curses, against the Soviet Union. United States officials acknowledged the propriety of the curses but deplored what they described 'the failure of the United Nations to halt the Soviet aggression'. The media on the whole, gratefully followed that lead.
In short, the Hungarians were ditched, the world war was avoided, and the United Nations took all the blame for the ignominious passivity through which the Eisenhower administration had avoided war.
That was a long time ago, but similar uses of the United Nations are still being made today, though more fuzzily. Take the case of Bosnia and President Clinton. Clinton has been under pressure to intervene in Bosnia but he doesn't want to do so, for adequate reasons. He is caught between actual and potential televised images. The images of the horrors of civil war in Bosnia, which Americans have been seeing on the screen, generate pressures for American military intervention. But the President knows that if American forces were actually sent there the new images on the screens, of dead American soldiers, would generate pressure for the recall of the troops. That is not speculation: the President's memory of what happened in Somalia is still fresh. So the President temporises, providing the occasional airstrike with mixed results. He then wonders aloud why the United Nations is not being more effective in dealing with the problem.
Spectacles of this kind are far from glorious or heartwarming, but they do have one precious feature. They represent - as do the older rituals - a method for the avoidance of making things even worse than they already are. The pressure to make things even worse is rising in the late twentieth century, with the growing importance of television. The instant harrowing images, impinging on minds with little or no sense of the significance of their context, are generating such pressures as never before. In these conditions, the rituals of avoidance, odd and even sordid though they may appear, are all probably becoming even more needful for our survival, than they have been in the past.
Avoidance, limitation, containment: keys to survival.
Avoidance of making things worse, as they would be made through imprudent interventions. Limitation: avoidance of excess, including excess of population. Containment, as far as possible, of the destructive forces within our psyche. Containment, not the utopian project for the elimination of those forces: a project whose pursuit in practice has carried whole peoples from Gulag to Gulag.
These negative capabilities are the side of the performing arts. In the wider sense whose acting out is conducive to our survival. But these negative capabilities are also inherent in the highest levels of the performing arts, in that narrower and often more exalted sense which you here represent. Tragedy warns against hubris. Comedy reminds us of the funny creatures we actually are, as distinct from the grandiose images we emulate at our peril. As a whole, I believe that the performing arts have a tendency to make us somewhat better, or if not better, at least to avoid the worse within ourselves. There are exceptions and I have dwelt on the most glaring one. Wagner was not a warning against hubris but a product of the greatest wave of hubris that has swept a culture in modern times. He was also the chief inspiration of the most horrendous case of hubris to erupt in modern history. But it is reasonable to hope that the Wagner-Hitler relation will remain forever exceptional: not necessarily aberrant, just exceptional. Let it serve as a salutary reminder of the dire possibilities that can lurk within even the performing arts, both in the wider and in the narrower sense.
Let me close on the theme of the containment, rather than elimination, of destructive forces. The great exemplification of this, in dramatic art, is of course the Oresteia of Aeschylus. The goddess Athena sets out to break the cycle of the blood feud, by containing the Furies. She does not rebuke the Furies but treats them with respect, even with a degree of deference. They are not to have Orestes, who is their chosen prey and, as they believe, their destined due. Orestes must be spared. The Furies are thereby reminded of a higher power than theirs. But their nature is not changed nor are they stripped of all jurisdiction. They are to have an honoured place, a temple within the city. The destructive forces are not eliminated but they are contained.
The clear-eyed goddess does not contemplate any utopia, for we are not fit for such, but she does show how, with calm and prudent management, the better can get the better of the worse. In the austerity of its limitation, this is one of the greatest moments in the history of art and of civilisation.


Conor Cruise O'Brien has alternated through the years between the world of active participation in national and international politics and the world of writing including playwrighting and teaching. Diplomat, statesman, academic, politician, playwright and journalist, he has been uniquely placed to observe and comment of some of the great and terrible events of the 20th century. He was the United Nations representative in the Congo when Katanga tried to secede; in New York when the Vietnam debate was argued against a background of urban violence; Senator and Cabinet Minister in his native Ireland when violence Northern Ireland was at its height; latterly, in London as Editor-in-Chief of The Observer.

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