Wednesday, June 29, 2016


Whether it was due to serendipity or synchronicity, a totally unlikely source I found by following tags has brought me exactly the insight I wanted about the neglect of the humanities, esp. by the hegemonic English speaking world.  Timothy Haase is a classicist loosely related to Wheaton College, of all the unlikely places for an eclectic lefty like myself to go looking.  His essay was on Medium, of all unlikely places, and addressed a video game called “That Dragon, Cancer.”  The video, consciously breaking with the swords and sorcerers conventions, recounts the real death of a boy in simulacrum terms that are like conventional video-games, but then again, raise the stakes and methods to access true tragedy.

It constantly bugs me that church services and supposedly thoughtful writers’ platforms are so trivial and predictable.  I search for some response to the overwhelming cultural devotion to “therapeutics” in terms of healing warriors missing half their bodies, always in wrenching pain while having no impact on events; or in terms of balancing a child’s death with a trip to Disneyland.  “Backrub Medicine.”  

It seems clear that we are a culture intent on making the humanities into nursery rhymes or Harlequin novels.  Or an economic bonanza for the medical and indemnity industries that have become the real SuperPowers.  It seems part of the feminist agenda to replace catharsis with soothing, as a way of maintaining control and the status quo, now that women have a rhetorical foothold strong enough to fire presidents of Alpha universities.

Beyond that, it bugs me that a certain sort of woman is so tone deaf to what T. tells in his boy-stories over and over, that she will deny tragedy in plain sight without any mitigation or much discussion.  At most the atrocities strike them as “sad” and they offer to “help” in some irrelevant way by saying how much they love the sufferers.  They have no dimension, no stature, or “gravitas,” if I have to use that word.

Reading Haase, I realize they have an education deficit.  They were not asked to read Edith Hamilton or even Greek drama in high school as I was in the Fifties.  In my high school (1953-57) we discussed formal “catharsis” rather than PTSD neurotheory.  And if catharsis came by way of whores, then that’s the truth.  It never occurred to them that Iphigenia may have been sacrificed for nothing or the price Antigone paid in order to sustain moral order was too high.

Humanities have been so overrun by science and math that the high dimensions have been lost.  What ought to be a partner and restraint on the science/techie world has been gut-shot to cripple its hold.  It’s so easy to just de-fund the arts.  Sometimes real tragedy is ignored and sometimes it’s diminished to cuteness, like calling a major anthro journal “Peeps.”  (Coming soon to your neighborhood, “Jehovah.”  We already did Jesus, but we could call a new version “Geez” or “Gee Whiz!”)

Newly hatched baby sea turtles

Science has provided transactional technical expertise that has lifted many a techie into prosperity (immediately sucked up by rent and investment gambles).  They are like the baby new-hatched turtles scuttling for the moonlit sea, in Tennessee William’s “Suddenly Last Summer” image, while the black and ragged predators descend on their cubicles from the sky.  “They” (?) tell us that commerce and social platforms are what keep the peace, because they make us stay in our pre-frontal cortex mode of rules and principles.  Some peace.  More like pieces.

Haase enumerates definitions of tragedy and catharsis:

“Tragedy is a representation of an action of a superior kind — grand, and complete in itself — presented in embellished language, in distinct forms in different parts, performed by actors rather than told by a narrator, effecting through pity and fear, the purification (catharsis) of such emotions.  (from Aristotle’s “Poetics”, Ch. 6, 1449b; Trans. Anthony Kenny)

Isn’t it obvious that much of T’s writing is “performed by an actor,” adding a layer that allows contraction, repetition, irony, oxymoron — and requires empathy?  He has always told us he is a performance artist, a dancer, sometimes “nue”, a primordial practice.  Why is it assumed to be narcissism and deception when we all know Greek theatre was performed wearing masks?  Print is ALWAYS a mask.  But then, so is vid.
"Orestes" by Euripides

The verbal noun (catharsis) derives from kathairo, “to cleanse, purify, purge” and katharos “ritually purified, cleansed” and can operate in multiple registers: RITUAL (as in the cleansing of guilt or defilement), MEDICAL (the cleaning of wounds, the evacuation of fluids), and INTELLECTUAL (the clarification of problems.)  

Sometimes the problem is in the receiver: a filter like a bag over the head.  Think of these three meanings in terms of unwanted immigrants and whether they are thought of as offending, defiling, guilty beings; or whether they seem wounding to our lives, carriers of infection, draining pus and sewage; or whether they fatally burden economic problems that were already difficult.

Now think of the three aspects in terms of boys with HIV: offending, defiling guilty beings doing sexwork, taking drugs, defacing buildings, wounding us and each other, carrying fatal viruses, being naked and needy.  And yet finding love between each other.  An analysis of all the mass shooters of recent years concludes the shooter is likely to be male, unable to form a sexual partnership, resentful because of believing something is deliberately being withheld from him, mistaking violence for power.

Now consider the failed imperative need of society to purify, cleanse and purge whether it is through the misguided punishment by clinics meant to cure, or through the refusal to rationally allot public funds according to need, or the incarceration of suffering youngsters.  Because we can.

Survival is the driving force of life.  Survival of the individual, of the group, and of us all.  That’s not the tragedy.  We know we will all die in the end.  That’s not the tragedy.  The tragedy is in the knowing and ignoring.  If we pretend that we don’t know, that’s a diminishment.  And tragedies at least deserve some scale, some grandness, some ennoblement.  And witnessing.  This is a humanities issue, not technical or scientific.

The boys of Cinematheque are a Greek chorus.  “You saw us and pretended you did not.”

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