If one said that our modern political scene resembled the spectacle of pro-wrestling, few might object to the statement. Indeed, I have never cared much for following the daily grind of politics, but I can see how it matters–even though I think many vastly overrate it. But I have never understood why anyone would like pro-wrestling. If we all know that it is essentially staged, and “fake,” why bother? The theater of it all is so obvious, yet people react to it so strongly. So too, our political discourse often seems so often cast in such stark terms, and who can say that this benefits us in any way?
Time for a confession . . . though I teach at a classical school, I have a hard time entering into most Greek drama. Aristophanes is fun, and I feel that I “get” Sophocles to a certain extent. But Euripides, and especially Aeschylus, have always seemed odd and distant. The action, the acting (those masks–how strange they seem to me), and the chorus take on such outsized proportions that the plays seems to offer no avenue to enter into the story. The characters almost become Ideas in awkward human form. Here stands “Rage,” there goes “Justice,” and so on.
But the Greek’s founded western civilization. They produced spectacular achievements in philosophy, science, architecture, and the like. So, Greek drama must be “high culture,” on par with these other elements of their civilization . . . ? If the Greeks are not being “lazy” with their dramatic works, we should consider whether or not “high culture” must always be subtle and refined like the Parthenon.*
In an intriguing essay Roland Barthes writes that,
What is thus displayed for the public [in pro-wrestling] is the great spectacle of Suffering, Defeat, and Justice. Wrestling presents man’s suffering with all the amplification of tragic masks. The wrestler who suffers in a hold which is reputedly cruel offers an excessive portrayal of Suffering. . . . This is why all the actions which produce suffering are particularly spectacular . . . Suffering which appeared without intelligible cause would not be understood. . . . suffering appears as inflicted with emphasis and conviction, for everyone must see not only that he suffers, but also and above all understand why he suffers.
. . . There is here the paroxysm of meaning in the style of antiquity, which can only recall the heavily underlined intentions in Roman triumphs.From Mythologies, pp. 19-21
Leave it to a French intellectual to use the phrase “paroxysm of meaning” when discussing pro-wrestling. But still–here I discovered why so many could know that pro-wrestling is “fake” and still enjoy it. Lots of people enjoy Greek drama too. Barthes writes earlier in the same essay that,
The function of grandiloquence is indeed the same as that of ancient theater, where principle, language, and props (masks and buskins) concurred in the exaggeratedly visible explanation of a Necessity. . . . Each sign in wrestling is therefore endowed with an absolute clarity, since one must always understand everything on the spot. As soon as the opponents enter the ring, the public is overwhelmed with the obviousness of the roles.Mythologies, pp. 16-17
At least in the Greek plays I have read, the audience clearly did not go to see a “plot twist,” or subtle character analysis. The action unfolds as the audience expects. Even the dilemmas for the characters have a structural rather than internal or personal character. Everything remains on the surface.
Our last four presidents (Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump), two Democrats and two Republicans, have rarely been subject to shades of grey analysis–especially Obama and most especially Trump.
For many in the print news media at least, Trump has the obvious role of villain. His hair, demeanor, speech, etc. are characterized in outsized terms. His every action must have sinister undertones. Some others see him in outsized heroic terms, even the acclaimed Eric Metaxas (whose biography on Bonhoeffer garnered much acclaim) wrote a children’s book entitled Donald Drains the Swamp, which casts President Trump in a mythically heroic role.
Given these observations, a few options present themselves.
The first could encourage us . . . many have lamented the decline of our discourse evident in increased polarization and lack of critical thinking in the media. But the Greeks did much the same thing with their public “media” in theaters, and they were not barbarians. Maybe we overstate the danger posed by our current discourse, just as cultural critics who lament the existence of pro-wrestling (and probably love Greek drama) should take another look at the various spectacles of our national life.
A problem with this interpretation, however, is that our culture is divided as to who is the villain, and who is the hero. But perhaps the Greeks were more divided than we might think. Just because they had plays doesn’t mean everyone loved them or agreed with their interpretations. Thucydides, for example, gives us plenty of evidence of a divided Athenian body politic.
A more negative interpretation would not focus on the lack of subtlety or nuance in our language, or divisions in our country–serious though they are. What I fear instead is that we don’t express our mythic loves and hates in mythic terms, and this leads to confusion and a lack of stasis in our culture. Our ships pass in the night nearly all the time. That is, we cannot and should not avoid our metaphysical reactions to certain policies or events, but in Greek drama and pro-wrestling, the language and structure is metaphysical, and thus, perfectly clear.
Perhaps our most obvious example of this involves our discussion of immigration. All of our discussions about the economic costs and benefits of increased or decreased immigration do nothing to convince anyone, because they fail to address the deep subtext. Those that favor more immigration really mean to advocate for
- A world where individual is seen as the key building block of society, and the empowerment of individual choice should triumph group solidarity.
- Immigrants are often seen as the underdogs, and so more open immigration supports the underdog
- Having a free market should mean free labor, and the more movement of labor allowed, the healthier and more productive the market will be (which is why libertarians favor more open immigration).
Those who seek more restrictions on immigration really seek to
- Prioritize the concept of a ‘national’ or local family’ and culture over that of the individual.**
- Put more of a focus on what happens inside our borders than outside (which is why non-interventionists in foreign policy tend towards wanting less immigration).
- Create a world where law and boundaries have real meaning and are not just arbitrary, i.e. good fences create good neighbors.
So poor has our discourse become on this issue, that both sides have devolved into nearly equally untenable positions: “Build a wall,” or “open borders.” The first option, at least in how it is understood in symbolic terms, proclaims that only a societal core should exist, that virtues such as hospitality cannot exist within that core. The second proclaims that no boundaries have any moral purpose, that borders–be they physical, cultural, or behavioral, have no place in society, despite the fact that every culture since the beginning of time has had them.
As usual, one gains perspective by not by discussing the ‘thing’ in question, but by something related to it. Maybe the next time you disagree with someone on a political issue, maybe try discussing instead whether or not you prefer Hulk Hogan or Ric Flair, and see where that takes you.
*Another possibility exists, one that I will not explore in depth here, and that is that our division of “high” and “low” culture has no real merit. Or, perhaps the Greeks would have admitted that their drama was “lowbrow,” and we just think it highbrow because it is old.
Going to a Shakespeare play today is quite a “high culture” event most of the time, but Shakespeare has many “low brow” moments in his plays. Of course, one could double back and say that “high” culture needs sprinklings of “low” moments to make it real and tangible, and avoid the danger of pure abstraction.
If we follow the bouncing ball, we might wonder if “low-brow” culture often is more conservative in nature. Or at least, it does not attempt to deconstruct anything.
However we think of these question, I acknowledge that the issue is not as simple as the post above might seem to make it.