Samuel Fuller: The Naked Kiss (1964)

naked kissIt’s been a while since I really talked out of my ass. Let’s do this!

So–briefly, I dedicated my life to filmmaking. I made one film, which was enough to teach me I never wanted to make another one ever again—because filmmaking involves working with other people, and other people suck—specifically, other people who write uninspired, faux-gritty, noir-inspired scripts that can only be read as vehicles for overacting. Me? I worshipped Godard and Truffaut’s early work—particularly Breathless with its self-referential film noir qualities…so you can guess how our relationship played out. (I cut him out of production by keeping him out of the loop).

Anyway, I had this 40-minute masterpiece, back when I was confident enough to sneak into dirty hotel rooms and scream at my actors (complete strangers) “WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU’RE HAVING SECOND THOUGHTS ABOUT THE NUDITY?” “OF COURSE YOU NEED TO PISS ON CAMERA INTO THE BATHTUB—AND YOU’RE DRINKING BEERS UNTIL YOU CAN SQUEEZE SOMETHING OUT!” I miss being confident and always right. Anyway, my masterpiece got edited down by the now-back-in-the-loop producer to, like, 10 minutes of crap since I wouldn’t use his neo-noir script, and the resulting crap won 4th place in a competition for grad students (I was all of 18 years old)—which, when I was informed of this on the last day of class, resulted in me cussing out the class for being such idiots, and quitting the film department.

One of the things we used to study was self-reflective films—and it all came rushing back to me when I watched Samuel Fuller’s The Naked Kiss. The self-reflective scene? When the over-acting cop undergoes an unexpected change of heart and acting ability, and tells the prostitute that the film can never end unless she stops over-acting also…in not so many words. She tones it down, the little girl confesses, and the movie ends.

Is it noir? I guess so. Fuller was associated with Fritz Lang at least as far back as the 1940s, removing us to the theatrical roots of German expressionism, so to some extent making the works of Fuller quintessentially pure noir.

Here’s the bottom line—I think Fuller’s Naked Kiss is pure schlock. Considering it from a collegiate standpoint, we’d probably focus in on undercurrent of childhood/motherhood/where babies come from:

  • ex-prostitute
  • begins film bald like a newborn baby
  • ends up sharing a room with a man—who happens to just be a sewing mannequin
  • becomes assistant in hospital for disabled children
  • weeps when she looks at a baby
  • pays her friend to skip town and secretly have her baby rather than abort it
  • reveals that she’s unable to have children
  • falls in love with guy over their shared ability to quote Lord Byron—(whose reputation for naughty love was pretty great, although Shelley might be more fitting since he killed more of his own children)
  • accidentally gets engaged to a child molester
  • navigates out of jail with the help of a pregnant woman and a molested child

The moral ambiguity results from the grandson of the town’s founder, the most popular guy in town, being a child molester; and the town’s other leading citizen, its favorite police officer, basically screwing every young woman that shows up in town before getting them jobs at his favorite brothel. And yet, he still approaches justice with a fair hand, which is what saves the heroine’s life. As she leaves the jail, she is surrounded by hundreds of the town’s mothers—supposedly to celebrate her saving the town’s children. They look like a lynch mob. We’d ultimately conclude that there’s some loss of innocence in America.

Where did noir come from? A combination of the crime literature popularized during the Depression—potentially before, as Richard Wright discusses his obsession with it in his boyhood (Black Boy)—as well as the visual techniques of German / Weimar Republic theater and cinema. It’s best known, though, as a 1940s and 50s American phenomenon, whether B-films or Humphrey Bogarts.

For this reason, I think the origins are perhaps most likely the response of German artists to the experience of WWI. French impressionist cinema bears many of the same hallmarks—subjectivity, hard lighting, disjointed narratives, a psychological focus. And whether it’s a nationalist backlash to Hollywood or picking up where the avant-garde left off, the result is a collective European reset on a post-Renaissance, post-Enlightenment world, a world in which the horrors of the other, of technologically backwards villages in one’s own nation, of vampires and phantom carriages, of one’s unresolved childhood sexual urges are no longer what strikes fear in the hearts of the masses, the bourgeoisie, or even the intelligentsia. Now that everyone’s been to the same trenches, learned to fight under common banners, the same nightmares strike all survivors—yet, a common film language is inadequate to speak to this new, common reality.

The result, rather, is a common film language that rejoices in an off-kilter visual and narrative representation of what previously made sense. Why did it make sense previously? Because world history was a progression from ignorance to knowledge, from chaos to order—for instance, turning India into a modern nation, Africa divided up into modern nations, the Middle East into modern nations—chaos to order, a notion that may have died in art, but certainly not in politics.

The old language was of love, folk tales, comedy—the new language is one of complexity, and mostly, one of darkness. Every viewer sees a different image on the screen in the distorted lenses, in the shadows, in the disorienting camera angles, and further, every viewer understands a different story, and at different rates. For once, it was possible to leave the theatre without a clue as to what’s transpired on-screen!

This was the generation that was forced out of an increasingly elegant universe into one in which morality held no bearing, where every man had spent time with prostitutes, murdered other innocent men, seen his closest friends tortured to death by that same science meant to help us live in health and happiness forever.

So, the generation who followed—they weren’t the first. What they inherited was a ready-made film language, as well as a world that everyone could agree was no longer particularly enlightened.

And that’s where I see American film noir: situationally post-modern, but not yet developed beyond a modernist language that doesn’t translate.


Aeschylus: The Oresteia

There’s nothing like giving oneself a facial to really get one thinking about the definition of justice. And like Plato, I’m not about to provide any answers.

Most people who spend any length of time around me know that I have my little fixations, usually on subjects that make everyone around me uncomfortable. So one of my primary objectives each day is to never expose my true feelings on this or that subject, but rather do my best to consider all sides…and usually that’s more elucidating anyway, as never in the history of mankind has someone changed his or her mind.

Facts are feelings.

When I was learning to drive, one of the things I was taught was “a million people can’t be wrong, so follow the indentations of their tires.” The follow-up question, of course, is “what if those million people were Nazis?”—not referring to the driving skills of Nazis, but the general rightness or wrongness of their beliefs or actions.

The answer is supposed to be “yes, a million Nazis were wrong.” And, so long as we’re counting, you can include pretty much everyone in Europe and England and the US and the Middle East, including the Jews who thought God would save them, including the Jews who considered themselves Nazis more than Jews. Everyone was to blame. The Americans and Brits were to blame for leaving France weaker in post-WWI victory than the Germans were in defeat, Churchill was to blame for obsessing over Britain’s retention of India and losing his voice nationally, the UK was to blame for not following Keynesian economics or rearming itself, the Church for striking deals with the Nazis and fascists, the US for its unchecked anti-Semitism and weak enforcement of the First Amendment.

And so we repeat, “never again.” Yet, if there’s one thing the 20th century has taught us, and the 21st century has affirmed, it’s that if you want to kill thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions upon millions of people, then you can get away with it. You’ll be ignored until you’ve finished, and then you’ll be condemned, and then you’ll be protected and live to a ripe old age. The Serbs still think the genocide should count as a patriotic act, not a war crime. The Turks deny the Armenian genocide ever happened. And both these countries are still on the path to EU membership? The Russians love their Soviet leader, Putin, who doesn’t seem to be garnering support for re-election so much as permission to go back in time. In Darfur a collective “oops” led to everyone on both sides just pretending that, you know, their next door neighbors didn’t murder their extended families, etc. etc.

Never again! At the rate things are going, you’ll have your turn too!

And then the law gets in the way when it comes to more than 25% of Cambodians being killed during the Khmer Rouge regime…because, well, that can’t be defined as genocide since the killers and killed were indistinguishable from one another ethnically. So, was it right? Or at least okay? According to the current Cambodian government and the UN that supported/supports(?) the Khmer Rouge, yes, it’s okay.

Usually it all works like any business corporation: shareholders ride the ups and downs, and if anything goes horribly wrong, the people on top can’t be held personally responsible. The Nazis were responsible. The Khmer Rouge was responsible. The Ottoman Empire was responsible. And since these things don’t technically exist anymore, everyone’s off the hook.

Why did the Nazis become so popular? Because they didn’t just provide answers, they also provided solutions. They took a worthless, defeated, embarrassed country and turned it, briefly, into the most powerful nation on earth. Did the first war actually just end because everyone was exhausted? Historically, isn’t that what determines the course of wars, the relative ease of a government of securing loans? Or is it which monarch will allow civilian deaths to go on longest?

Didn’t ordinary Germans finally turn against their government and question why this war was happening in the first place? And then, after all this struggle, why, within shooting distance of Paris, were the Germans were somehow declared the losers? The Jews, of course. And economic and military strength grew quite quickly once anti-Jewish policies were in place. It doesn’t always work out that way. And it’d be a stretch to say any other genocide occurred in a modern, industrial country. It’s not that the whole country went mad, it’s that the country made decisions in its best interest that, likely, any country would do. I mean, consider all these African and Middle Eastern countries involved in civil wars related to the Arab Spring. Give these governments better infrastructure and less ineptitude, and that’d be all they’d need.

And so, we’re ultimately left with the problem that once in a while a few policymakers are condemned for their policies, but let off the hook for trying their best to do good under stressful circumstances. And their subordinates can all claim to be “just following orders” as a valid legal defense, the law of command responsibility. And that’s why it’s okay that 20-some American soldiers raped, tortured, mutilated, and murdered more than 500 unarmed civilians at My Lai. That’s more or less how the reports from Iraq go too.

And that’s where it gets so confusing for me. “How much justice can you afford?” is the correct question. If you have a lot of money, you’re in charge of whichever government you choose. US elections can legally be bought by foreign donors now—and just as sure as the Chamber of Commerce supports outsourcing American jobs overseas, they’re also willing to receive and distribute foreign money in favor of their chosen candidates.

And so we return to the awkwardly disconcerting ending of the Oresteia. Individuals should no longer take matters into their own hands, because we now have Justice. And according to Justice, if while hiding you saw your sister gang-raped and then have her hands and tongue cut off by some soldiers…well, a crime hasn’t been committed. And if you sought revenge, there’d be nobody to blame for what had happened. And so all over the world our neighbors were actors in horrific crimes against humanity—and they’ll never, ever be held accountable.

The both sides: one, that life is precious; the other, that if personal justice went unchecked, there’d be total chaos.

Mussolini’s entire “Doctrine of Fascism” reinforces this. The state is a living creature, endowed with the same rights liberals of the 19th and 18th centuries believed held by individuals, Mussolini said. The difference, he says, is that an individual only has those rights and freedoms by being part of the state. The first part sounds similar to the 2010 Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court. The second part sounds like the proposal to support a Republican purity test a.k.a “Resolution on Reagan’s Unity Principle for Support of Candidates.”

Fascism, ideally, involves people acting like bees, sacrificing themselves for the good of the hive. Where we are, rather, is more like an ant colony, everyone working toward the good of the hive, but inebriated with an individualistic will to live. We look at Pol Pot killing off his family, or Richard III’s ruthless murdering of his nephews, and condemn their heartlessness when they’d be more aptly described as doctrinaire. And the line blurs further when leaders call abortion-providers murderers, or call gays honest-to-goodness devils, inspiring their followers to kill doctors in Kansas and gays in Uganda. Doctrinaire, indeed. Following the law of command responsibility, rarely. So, how much justice can you afford?

I definitely, definitely had time to do a mud mask after all, dammit…and I still need to iron my pants for tomorrow.

drama: Moliere: Tartuffe (1664)

Although I’m looking at Moliere through a translator, I haven’t been quite impressed by what I have read, which, I suppose is ignoring language altogether in favor of meaning. Tartuffe is a story of a prominent and wealthy man duped by a con-man, Tartuffe, who pretends to be excessively pious in such a way that is thorougly modern, considering the sorts of religious figures in Chaucer or even in Grapes of Wrath, in which the religion is the clothes one wears, this is entirely different because religion becomes Tartuffe’s very skin. Since those who term themselves non-denominational have grown to such prevalence in recent years, I only began studying religion because of such people who would ask me questions like, ‘yes, you read the bible, but did you READ it?’ So, I must relate one of the best examples of casuistry I’ve ever heard, which is only the finest example I know of a million others. I asked, ‘so…you said you’d never have sex again if he broke up with you…so, how is sleeping with all these guys possibly in line with the teachings of Jesus?’
‘Easy–I thought about it and I figured it out. You see, as a Christian I’m only supposed to sleep with the man I’m married to. And really, if you plan on marrying a guy it’s pretty much the same as if I’m already married to him, because my intentions are sincere. So, all I have to do is tell myself that this is the guy I’m going to marry, and it’s as if I’m already married to him, so that when I have sex with him it’s not against un-Christian of me.’
‘You know…finding loopholes in the bible is a bit dangerous.’
‘Well…because you’re not going to outsmart god.’
‘It’s all right there in the bible.’
‘Well, that was very clever of you.’

This is how Tartuffe operates, convincing Orgon to sign over all his worldly possessions, force his daughter into marrying him, and giving him enough evidence to have him jailed as a traitor. With just a few pages to go, the king saves the day and the good are rewarded and the bad are punished. The emphasis everyone places on this play is over the criticism of religion–Moliere was nearly excommunicated over it, and the play was banned–over his depiction of a man falsely religious, whose religious logic makes sense for evil ends. And I don’t particularly care–the movie Saved does a better job of putting it together for me.

But there’s this question which isn’t entirely answered, being: how is it that Orgon can be so easily duped, and then so steadfast in believing in the goodness of Tartuffe, against all reason? Well, the answer is suggested in the introduction I read, too bad I didn’t come up with it on my own. In any case, nobody seems to discuss this one: Orgon is getting on in years, with a daughter on the verge of marriage, a young second wife for himself, and various spunky servants living with the family, and in his bitterness over his declining overall virility, his only answer is to force everyone else to lead the life time has doomed him to live, and his solution is found in Christianity and its ‘no fun allowed’ principles. While Tartuffe is exploiting Orgon for money and power, Orgon is exploiting Tartuffe as shackles over his family. This is all that gives him depth, and it takes Tartuffe’s near-rape of Orgon’s wife before Orgon is shaken out of bitterness. Orgon himself is never religious, but enamored by the religiosity of Tartuffe, and uses one for the substitute for the other.

Once a day I have a small ability to write, and this is not that once a day, because I just can’t convince myself to care right now!

theatre: sideshow theatre company: everything freezes

i don’t think i really had any idea what theatre is until i saw this show, which makes me more deeply thrilled to have been one of the people to help make it happen.

i hate to reference it again, but the show Pippin had one of the most profound effects on my life, firstly because of the chord changes on the last song, secondly because of the violins on the last song, thirdly because of the way it showed me that, yes, i’m going to die unhappy, and likely a coward also. anyway, i was fascinated by it and began speaking with cast members of the show i’d seen, asking them questions, and learned that they, all being teenagers, had been told it had a happy ending, when i think it has one of the most tragic endings of anything i’ve witnessed. they had been told that the main character just hadn’t recognized that his life was complete and that he was happy, and that when he recognizes it he gives up plans of suicide. what really happens is that he gets too scared to kill himself and goes back to a life of discontent because it’s the best his rationality can come up with. rationality is a terrifying thing, isn’t it? fortunately, i’m accused regularly of under-utilizing my own, so i must be on the right track. the point i’m getting at is that all those actors in Pippin were wrong, for whatever reason, they were wrong, wrong, wrong. now, i know that the author is supposed to know more about the characters than he lets on….but the actors?

the use of repetition, like lawrence or the hebrew poetry

other things i noticed on the second time

drama: Molière – The Misanthrope (1666)

Amidst the calls of John McCain in the last debate, “now, there’s just another example of Senator Obama’s eloquence” it’s rather fitting to read Alceste making the same arguments just about now, and to consider how Molière presents him. A friend mentioned that she’d heard Molière described as the French Shakespeare–I disagree, because Shakespeare, in my opinion, in his best work concentrates on the person rather than on the idea. There are, as I recall, some of his plays that seem rather to in a way typify ad absurdum, e.g., Titus as revenge play, Comedy of Errors, but as one moves through his work, there is something always very human about his characters–although most would disagree, I find even his Joan la Pucelle or Aaron worthy of our sympathy. But then, as I’ve stated before, I’ve been accused of naturalistic readings of Shakespeare, so I suppose I’m not particularly worthy of interpreting them. Meantime, I’m not even sure how one stages The Misanthrope, its scenes ending mid-conversation, and beginning again right where they left off, except now the room is filled with more players. Perhaps French drama demanded the players never enter or exit the stage mid-scene? Shakespeare’s comedies always use marriage as a device to end a play quickly, as love never seems very sincere here–and this is a comparison I can make easily: even the deepest love suffered by Alceste is easily broken off at the play’s conclusion. This leads me then to Peters’ discussion (‘The Rhetoric of Adornment in “Le Misanthrope”‘, by Jeffrey N. Peters The French Review) that one’s essence is cloaked beneath one’s social presentation.

So, what of language? There is the language of court, the language unadorned by rhetoric, which is later paralleled by the language of poetry, and the language of letters between friends. And what makes it all the more interesting is that the whole play is written in rhyming couplets, so that even the barest prose is rendered ornate by that which represents it. Alceste makes a reference to an old poem that, although simple, is passionate–and I can identify, considering the deep song lyrics presented by Lorca in his lectures–simple and breathtaking, anonymous authors, poor us.

But then…how much am I supposed to extract from a comedy of manners except what is obvious, the same criticism we always hear, that outward appearances are more highly valued than inner substance, even today on Wall Street, that we thought was a meritocracy until we found ourselves beset by misvalue.

drama: Aristophanes: the Clouds (419 BCE)

The most important thing Meredith taught me was that I should shut the fuck up. Meantime, I have no regrets about the scene I just made in an Applebees in the middle of the Maine woods, in which I got into a very angry debate over French/American political relations, which always comes down to the same thing, someone throws out a stereotype about the French or the Roma or the any other group of people in the world, and I ask for some sort of evidence, of which nobody ever has any, and then I remind that the group we ourselves belong to not only is associated with some pretty bad stereotypes, but that in my experience they’re all true. And then everyone gets offended and pissed off because, well, we’re angels, and it’s the rest of the world who’s fucked up. So I’ve completely had it with hipsters, intellectuals, young people, the inveterate, fanatics, zealots, and artists. The only people I still like are: alcoholics, nymphomaniacs, chefs.

One might call Don Quixote “self-reflexive” in the way Cervantes’ own work finds its way onto the bookshelves of Don Quixote, and is soon after substantially criticized. Is this humorous? Only under the condition that we know whom Cervantes is, and that he wrote what we’re reading, and perhaps a bit about his past literary failures. And if somebody uses the same technique now, is it postmodern? And if it is postmodern, is it postmodern because it’s a borrowed technique? Or does its being borrowed just make it derivative? And if one bases an entire work on such techniques, is that then postmodern? Or is it what we now call “ironic”—a term which is now defined as “any act, pretense, or creation that is uninspired, derivative, uneducated, misinformed, or otherwise pageanted as unique, employed as a pretense for an antithetical interior.” When I attended a class on “Modern American Drama,” I scoffed at the idea that “one cannot begin to understand modern American drama before understanding what came before it.” And we spent 90% of the class reading wretched 19th century plays…but I was one of the lucky ones, because I accidentally fell into studies that led me away from our contemporary liberal arts education, it’s precisely that education that makes me cry every time I see someone reading Lolita (you don’t deserve to read Lolita!) or Ulysses (have you read anything else by Joyce? Do you own a dictionary?) or hear somebody exclaim that they’ve decided to begin a new religion…in earnest. I haven’t read Ulysses. Because I’m not ready yet. And I shouldn’t’ve read Lolita.

The world of art, in my eyes, is a meritocracy. Do you deserve to do what you’re trying to do? So I’m not bothered by musicians who don’t understand music theory so long as they have large musical vocabularies (thereby forcing them to have some unorthodox system of theory). I met a chef recently and asked her what she thought of a certain classy restaurant (I don’t own nice enough clothes to eat there) whose owners had no formal culinary education. She said their quality was inconsistent. But so was Paul Verlaine’s. Why is cheap porn legal when it tries so hard to ruin the choreography? If I ever hear “it’s just sex” or “I always thought it was pretty straightforward” again–I’m going to get violent–and I don’t mean sadistic, I just mean violent. I am bothered by artists who neglect studying history and chemistry—they forget that Picasso illustrated a volume of Buffon’s Natural History, or that Duchamp studied classical methods of painting, or that Warhol was a practicing Catholic (the parallels between Catholicism and his art should make you laugh…only they just occurred to me). I am bothered by poets who don’t live as if words are actions, who don’t understand verbal economics, who don’t press back into the cervix of literature before struggling to lick their mothers’ lips…which is where Aristophanes comes in:

Wouldn’t it be considered avant-garde if, during a play, the playwright himself walked out and began discussing the merits of his own work, the demerits of others’ work, and discussing the work we are currently auditing? There’s a word I like: audit. That’s why I only read poetry aloud—it belongs in the air. Imagine it in a film, actually, if in the middle of a comedy the director began speaking directly to the audience. And if that’s not strange enough, imagine if it wasn’t the director who was speaking, but rather if one of the characters began speaking as if he himself was the director, completely leaving his role in the film and pretending to be a person who exists outside of the film in reality, who helped create the film. Pretty fucked up. And yet this happened—to relatively little acclaim—twenty years before the trial of Socrates.

My second comment is this: I find it fascinating to see Aristophanes disagreeing with Socrates, to read Plato’s arguable portrait of Gorgias, to consider the idea that proponents of Aeschylus hated those of Euripides, or to recognize that American schools like to shy away from Plato’s critiques on democracy or Plutarch’s illustrious depiction of Lycurgus and his utopian Sparta. Have people really been people ever since the beginning? How quaint!


p.s. i need someplace to live during september. can i live with you?

drama: Frayn: Copenhagen (1998)

When there’s a great historical question, an event that has baffled minds for over half a century, upon which hinged the fate of the earth, and whose participants were famously esoteric about the whole thing, it’s natural that what we imagine took place would be fascinating. In reality it wouldn’t be. But, let’s say someone wrote a Tony Award winning drama about it, then it Would be interesting. Well, it isn’t. During my foray into armchair physics I found the name of this play as a speculative reconstruction of the last friendly meeting of Bohr and Heisenberg. Oh well, perhaps I only expect everything post-Albee to be Albeean–drama, which tends to be the only niche for the twists of old short stories, is perhaps falling the way of all New Yorker flesh. Boring. Implicated climaxes. Colorless. More mundane than any day of my week. I’m glad I read it, so I could take it off my Amazon wishlist. And I made a new friend. And it shows avenues of reading physics as philosophy that Dino and I had not yet considered, quantum philosophy rather than string philosophy.

Aristophanes: The Birds.

Click for source of picture.
Click for source of picture.

It’s difficult to care–I haven’t any desire to write this because I just don’t care for the play at all–but that should be beside the point, shouldn’t it? I mean, because it’s a classic I’m not meant to enjoy it, right? I’m just meant to absorb it so I can include myself in the collective unconscious of the cultured, right? Right? Can’t I find something at all that attracts me, that holds me? Yes–there’s this one thing: the concept transliterated as polupragmosune. Arrowsmith, in the introduction to his translation, calls it the “spectacular restless energy” amongst the Greeks peculiar to Athenians, going on to say that “on the positive side, it connotes energy, enterprise, daring, ingenuity, originality, and curiosity; negatively it means restless instability, discontent with one’s lot, persistent and pointless busyness, meddling interference, and mischievous love of novelty.” The Birds traces the unavoidable nature of this quality as Pisthetairos seeks simplicity away from Athens, which results in his combination of Athens and Olympus, and his own apotheosis. And it’s this polupragmosune that worries me about my own nature–I don’t believe it’s the nature of all Americans, but I think it’s the nature projected upon the rest of the world. We find ourselves sympathizing with Athens rather than Sparta, when reading Plato and Plutarch has convinced me to reconsider democracy, and I worry about what a president of the EU could mean, what a United States of Europe could do to destroy history and culture, if it means another great superpower, if it means war. So is polupragmosune something like the artist’s lot? Or is it a political and social plague? Is it something I should be proud to possess, or does it clothe me in the most highly criticized qualities of Americans? This leads to one last question, then: can one possess these qualities to a less offensive extent than is dramatized by Aristophanes? Arrowsmith recognizes that these qualities were “born of life and aggressive hunger for larger life” in conjunction with Aristophanes’ illustration that the restlessness always results in one’s loss of happiness, one’s loss of dignity, peace, and honor. Victor Ehrenberg notes that polupragmosune has an opposite, but there is nothing in the middle, that only when one acts in extremes can “a conclusion be drawn as to his own nature.” And I am reminded of the epidemic of tedious melodrama we come across daily, the stories and obsessions, the hurt feelings and revenge tactics used to waste time, to convince ourselves that our own lives are worthwhile and fascinating, to convince ourselves that we are doing something in the meantime. Is this polupragmosune manifested in a modern democracy, where we all feel the need to build monuments at any cost?

“Polypragmosyne: A Study in Greek Politics, by Victor Ehrenberg”

The Tempest

The idea of isolating a group of people on an island is a popular one for authors to express their views of human nature. Perhaps the most well-known examples are Lord of the Flies, by Golding, and the opposing Island, by Huxley. Though Shakespeare’s The Tempest does not especially debate the topic of the inherent good or bad in human nature, it certainly presents the seeds of later utopic and dystopic writings. The way Shakespeare does this is through his characters’ perception of the island. Many view it as a new beginning with possibilities for the lives they dream of leading. The Lord Adrian admires the island’s natural beauty, speaking of it as “of subtle, tender and delicate temperance” (II.i.41) and continuing that the “air breathes upon us here most sweetly” (II.i.45). Antonio, during the same scene, detests what Adrian adores, calling it “tawny” (II.i.47) and “perfumed by a fen” (II.i.47). The old Gonzalo sees possibilities for change and argues that if it were under his control; it would become a place of purity, leisure, and abundance without labor. In other words, a garden of Eden. Caliban sees the island as his home, the place he has always lived and on which he would like to reside in peace (III.ii.40); and Ferdinand would like to make the island his home (IV.i.130). Finally, the butler Stephano would like to take the island over by killing Prospero and becoming king. Considering the characters’ opinions about the island and its fate, if Shakespeare had human nature in mind when he wrote this, what might be his own views?

Death of a Salesman


Willy’s family background contributes to the shape of his personality and embeds in him the values and goals he works towards throughout his life. His background results in his philosophies on life, the world, and his own position in society. Willy works hard to follow not only his father, but his brother Ben as well. His father was sometimes a salesman (Bedford Introduction to Literature, 4th ed. 1687) and Ben is a businessman. Willy attempts to make his life a mesh of the two fields, not realizing that he cannot be a success as both a well-liked salesman and disliked businessman, both traits important in their respective fields. Willy wants to be like his father, selling goods in many towns and cities and being well-known and liked. The most influential character in his life, judging by the number of times Willy mentions him, is his older brother, Ben. Ben differs from Willy because of his ambitious nature and callousness, which leads to the success Willy lacks. But through the differences between the brothers, even when Ben is not present, important aspects of Willy’s character become more prominent. Ben’s character is so important that even in death he changes the life of Willy. Ben has lived the American dream, allowed his work to involve his hands (like their father) and worked hard for fortune. The American Dream is seen as living a better life than did your parents. Willy wants to also live the American Dream, and thinks that if he works hard enough and does enough of his job, American society will assure his success; however, through this paper I intend to show how this idea is a false one, as Ben attempts to prove to Willy throughout the play.

When Ben Loman was seventeen, he left home for Alaska. When he was twenty-one, he walked out of the jungle, and by God, he was rich. Ben’s original intentions were good, as he tells Willy he was “going to find Father in Alaska” (1686). After leaving home in search of his father, he later admits, “I discovered after a few days that I was heading due South, so instead of Alaska, I ended up in Africa.” (1686). More than likely, Ben would have ended up in Texas rather than Africa, a fact that makes his statements a bit unbelievable. Traveling from central United States to Africa is no short trip anyway, and if Ben actually did make it that far, it was no accident, as he implies when he says he just “ended up” (1686) there. A big question is simply: why? Why did Ben choose to continue in the wrong direction? He claims that “at that age I had a very faulty view of geography” (1686) and that was the factor that led him astray–unintentionally. The faulty view of geography could be seen in a couple lights, both negative. It may be that after leaving home he decided it was silly to go in search of his father, at which point (in Ben’s view) he would no longer have a faulty view of geography, because he saw which direction he should be heading and why (Africa–for success). Or that faulty view of geography may be one that he maintained all his life, even to the moment that he is speaking; that view may be one of pure selfishness, which is often seen as a “fault” and all decisions he has made through his life were based on what others would consider a faulty view of life.

Either way, Ben made his way to what Willy exclaims to be The Gold Coast (1686), which later became Ghana. Both countries, even in the present, have a history of being easy targets for fortune-seekers. The specifics of how Ben became wealthy don’t matter as much as the possibility (from the time period and setting) that he took advantage of the wilderness he walked into, raped the jungle, and profited off of the uneducated natives. The jungle, Africa, and Alaska are viewed as frontiers, as places filled with buried treasures of the earth just waiting to be discovered. In Ben’s case, the treasure is literal (as opposed to cures for diseases or new species); mining diamonds, and gold, or any such rare finds requires the destruction of many natural resources, not only because of the digging itself, but through its methods of pollution and wastefulness (such as the use of mercury in gold mining, which in turn poisons the water).

Willy might have followed Ben on these adventurous trips and their successes if it wasn’t for Linda, who acts in opposition to Ben. Willy never blames her for that opposition. When Ben invites him to come with him to Alaska for success and fortune, Linda chimes in that he has “Enough to be happy right here, right now” (1704). This starts Willy off on a spiel (spoken like a true salesman) about how successful he and his boys will be. The argument is between Linda and Ben, each person tossing a few words at Willy to set him into arguing against himself. He switches sides, sometimes claiming that he doesn’t need tangible wealth, “You can’t feel it in your hand like timber, but it’s there!” (1704) and other times agreeing that he does, “That’s true, Linda, there’s nothing” (1704). In the end, Linda wins the argument as displayed when Willy gives a speech to Ben about the fortune found in the big cities of America. Although he asks for Ben’s advice once more, he doesn’t follow Ben out the door (1705). The tangibility issue rises once more in the play when Ben and Willy are “discussing” Willy’s possible suicide: “twenty-thousand – that is something one can feel with the hand, it is there” (1724). Ben speaks sense to Willy, bringing up points such as the fact that the insurance company may not pay the $20,000, or that Biff may see Willy as only a coward. When Ben “goes off” to think about the proposition Willy makes, he returns certain that Willy is making the right choice. Ben’s last words are no longer stating that “I’ll be late for my train” (1688) but “The boat. We’ll be late” (1729). Willy considers himself finally making the right choice he has so long regretted not making–he’s leaving for prosperity with Ben on the vessel of death.

The Ben who helps make Willy’s big decision is not the same Ben as during the rest of the play. The last Ben is only a creation of Willy’s, not a memory of actual events in the past. This false Ben is helpful and more of the likeable and wise man Willy wants him to be. In reality, the Ben of the past is more of the sort of rough businessman expected. At one point while speaking to Willy, who is the only other man in the scene, Ben spits out, “Great inventor, Father. With one gadget he made more in a week than a man like you could make in a lifetime” (1687). Ben has stepped into Willy’s life for the first time since Willy’s early childhood, and makes cruel insults in front of Willy’s family. “A man like you” and the words surrounding it make Willy out to be worthless, and a complete failure compared to his father. In response, Willy blocks out anything negative that statement might have had, and quickly responds with “That’s just the way I’m bringing them up, Ben” (1687). Willy goes on to explain that he is bringing them up to be “rugged, well-liked, and all-around,” (1687) but it is no coincidence that Willy is bringing up his sons to be the “man like you” Ben talks about–failures. Ben doesn’t even consider Willy’s family to be relations. He tells Biff to “Never fight fair with a stranger” (1687), but what sort of stranger is brought into one’s home, showered in respect and honor, a blood-relation, and still a stranger? He would be no stranger to Willy or his family. Willy says, “You see what I’ve been talking about” (1686) to his family, and if he speaks about Ben as often before Ben’s visit as he does after, Ben is no stranger to the Loman household; they might know him just as well as Willy ever did.

If Uncle Ben is a popular subject Willy speaks of, then those around him likely notice the differences between the brothers. Willy does not entirely agree with Ben’s life philosophies, because he doesn’t follow them. After speaking to “Ben” one evening, Willy ends the conversation with “That’s just the spirit I want to imbue them with! To walk into a jungle! I was right! I was right! I was right!” (1688). Just a moment later, Linda explains that Willy had pawned the diamond watch fob Ben had given him so that Biff could take a radio correspondence course. Radio correspondence isn’t quite the jungle Ben had conquered. In other words, Willy, while still looking up to Ben, can’t bring himself or his boys to follow Ben’s footsteps. Ben is Willy’s mentor. Willy imagines that Ben’s line “When I was seventeen, I walked into the jungle. And by twenty-one, I walked out. And by God, I was rich!” is complete, without anything left out. He’s wealthy, adventurous, ruthless, and not confined or held-back by anything. If Willy had to choose someone to look up to, Charley would be a good choice, because he is the realism while Ben’s life is totally romantic. Willy can’t understand Charley’s success because it goes against the formula he believes is right for his own achievement. Ben is what drives Willy for success; Ben has been a success in the wild unknowns, Willy can’t even succeed in New England.

Before the brothers’ individual gross successes can even be determined, their pasts must be added in, as described by Ben and Willy during the play. Ben acts as a figure of strength and success that Willy spends his life trying to match. Because Ben left his family when Willy was just “Three years and eleven months” (1686) old, Willy would be about seven years old by the time Ben is twenty-one and rich. Therefore Willy would have mostly grown up in his older brother’s shadow, always trying to match Ben’s success. Ben’s successes in the jungle and later investments are due partially to Ben’s attitude, philosophies, and stern manner, but also undoubtedly to some sort of good luck. Ben’s role is as the driving force behind Willy. It’s his encouragement, whether real or fake, that pushes Willy to act as he does. Willy is convinced that one’s character is directly related to the level of success one has. Because Willy hasn’t seen much of Ben in his life, he doesn’t realize that he may be the only person who likes Ben at all. He doesn’t realize that Ben is not a kind person, that he probably isn’t well liked because of his own attitudes toward life and working toward success. Ben advocates fighting dirty and it reflects his attitude on any sort of fight as well, whether it be merely physical or business or if it be getting ahead anywhere in life. Willy looks over the fact that Ben never brought home their father, and instead went to pursue his own interests. Willy then pushes his boys in both directions: to follow Ben into the jungle, that is, away from the family, and at the same time, to help keep the family together and successful.

As the person Willy most looks up to, the problem exists that Ben’s actions directly conflict with Willy’s own. Willy’s father abandoned the family while he was still very young. His father left to strike it rich in Alaska and never came back to his family. In Willy and Ben’s eyes’, this should have been totally unacceptable and irresponsible. The effect it had on Willy is clear, as Willy does not ever abandon his family but instead fights to keep it perfect and a model throughout his entire marriage, even to his death. Ben, on the other hand, who should have been disgusted at his father’s actions, instead follows him into seeking fortune in the wilderness. The only difference between Ben and their father is that Ben is clearly successful and has returned to offer some success to Willy in the form of an employment opportunity. Ben acts as a father to Willy by acting as a role model. Willy’s father never returned, but Ben did. Ben could continue his father’s story, justify his father’s actions for leaving the family, and at the same time give a standard for Willy to work toward. The relationship between Ben and Willy is comparable to the relationship between Willy and his sons. He may also be seen as the other half of Willy’s personality, complementary of Willy. The difference between Ben and Willy is that Ben is a businessman, and Willy is a salesman. In his business, Ben is allowed to “fight dirty,” and to have power is much more important than being well liked. On the other end of the scale, it’s important for Willy to be everyone’s friend, because that’s all he can do to sell his product. Willy brings home this need to be well-liked to his family by lying to them about his own successes and in turn creating a house full of liars, each lying about their own lives and successes. Willy has persistence to live the American Dream he wants, but it is something that he cannot do.