Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Borrowed Kettle

I think it's possible to absorb the first third of Slavoj Zizek's book Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle (2004) without a working fluency in Lacananian psychoanalysis or Hegelese. Here's a fun passage that samples Zizek's freewheeling cold fusions and metaphorical mashups:
According to Jewish tradition, Lilith is the woman a man makes love to while he masturbates alone in his bed during the night -- so, far from standing for feminine identity liberated from the grip of patriarchy, as some feminists claim, her status is purely phallic: she is what Lacan calls La femme, the Woman, the phantasmatic supplement of male masturbatory phallic jouissance. Significantly, while there is only one man (Adam), femininity is from the very beginning split between Eve and Lilith, between the ordinary hysterical barred subject ($) and the phantastmatic spectre of Woman: when a man is having sex with a 'real' woman, he is using her as a masturbatory prop to support his fantasies about the nonexistent Woman ... The catastrophe occurs when the two women collapse into one, when the 'ordinary' partner is elevated to the dignity of Lilith -- which is structurally perfectly homologous to the Zionist elevation of the 'ordinary' Jerusalem into the Jerusalem the Jews had been dreaming about for thousands of years ...
At one point in the '07 workshop, Jason pointed out that for all its digressions and blind alleys, the emotional currents of This Storm Is What We Call Progress still follow a basic love triangle. Lily and The Woman With the Silver Skin have some kind of erotic tie apart from the tutor-mentor relationship they exhibit when we meet them. Adam enters the scene and falls for Lily, but falls harder for the world of the Silver Skinned Woman because her knowledge of Kabbalah offers clues to his Gentile father's madness and suicide.

There is another female character who we never see. God is repeatedly referred to with a feminine pronoun, but I'm speaking of a character who's never even mentioned. Her existence and identity fuels the power dynamic that binds the three on-stage characters as they grind through the necessary convulsions of the love triangle. She is the Jewish half of Adam's hyphenated soul* and for all the fallen-father drama on display, it's a little odd (but maybe appropriately spooky) that we never hear about her -- I didn't even think about her until a couple weeks into rehearsal. I'm speaking, of course, of Adam's nameless mother.

I can only imagine how Adam would tell the story of his parents courtship! "Starving, Gentile, artist father" meets Jewish woman. Father falls deep into the spell of Kabbalah and starts talking to walls, seeing faces and speaking in tongues when Adam is 7 or 8 and continues his descent through Adam's adolescent years, then dies trying to fly off the Golden Gate Bridge when Adam reaches manhood. Bracketed by two powerful women in the foreground drama, Adam eagerly hurls himself into the same thicket of gender/power dynamics that seduced and killed his father.

Not surprisingly, Adam has an op-ed in his pocket about the State of Israel and its spooky overlap with the fascist persecution that catalyzed its creation. Zizek points out a literal overlap in his book, too:
Anyone who is interested in the history of anti-Semitism should remember 26 September 1937: on that day, Adolf Eichmann and his assistant boarded a train in Berlin in order to visit Palestine: Heydrich himself gave Eichmann permission to accept the invitation of Feivel Polkes, a senior high member of Hagannah (the Zionist secret organization), to visit Tel Aviv and discuss the co-ordination of German and Jewish organizations in order to facilitate the emigration of Jews to Palestine. Both the Germans and the Zionists wanted as many Jews as possible to move to Palestine. The Germans preferred to have them out of Western Europe, and the Zionists themselves wanted the Jews in Palestine to outnumber the Arabs as quickly as possible.
He goes on to state that both groups, therefore, were pursuing a kind of "ethnic cleansing." I'm sure there's a great Kosher joke to be had here, but damn if I can summon one. It reminds me of another passage from Storm, where Adam compares an aliyah to membership in the IRA. He's half-Jewish and half-Irish, so both branches of the family tree are marked by terroristic religious warfare.
Because, you know, because, before recently I was no more likely to do an aliyah than I was to join the IRA. But, but, but Zion is descending into this fanaticism and mediocrity. Jews are finally white people, but all that being a white person gets you is the right to be as brutal and vicious and banal as you like without having to say you're, uh, sorry. To build these ugly-ass suburban tract houses on someone else's land because God told you you could have holy sod lawns and holy, holy, holy, aluminum siding.
Like any good artist, Adam holds banality and ugly-ass suburbanity as morally equivalent to brutality and viciousness. Hannah Arendt makes an appearance later to paraphrase her own insight about the "banality of evil" by dismissing the whole Third Reich as "an old and oft-recurring story and not particularly original."

Now, it's fun to snipe at the Philistines (what Zizek might call "the jouissance of the theatre geek"), but the unoriginal thesis that "evil is unoriginal" is only one part of the dialectic engaged in Storm. The preponderance of the play is about how the mundane and the ecstatic converge everywhere. Records descend from the sky. Tupperwear and metro cards become holy totems. Oddly specific prophecies abound ("the next person you see will die in an elevator accident"). Hasidim Jews wear baseball caps and bomber jackets. And "all the bullshit writing that's around us everywhere is some kind of prayer" -- this includes Chinese take-out menus and junk mail. So while Adam can get a lot of reinforcement from Arendt, and a lot of righteous glee by savaging the ugly-ass suburban aesthetic, he also has to contend with the "banality of god" glowing at him from every Manhattan sewer.

On the surface of it, this Kabbalistic code-breaking resembles John Nash's schizophrenic scribbling in A Beautiful Mind or Catherine's madness in Proof.** Any collection of symbols -- random junk mail, magazine articles, Chinese takeout menus -- can be thrown into the cipher-mill and "divined" for paranoid Communist infiltration or, in the case of Adam's father, the emergent life-force of God herself.*** But the question of madness isn't nearly as interesting as the question of power, even when the two seem inseparable. Sex, art, politics, religious ritual -- these are different wormholes into the same ecstatic flush and Jason finds a potent scene for each of them. In Storm, the Kabbalah isn't offered as a subject unto itself; it's mostly another wormhole. Or rather, Kabbalah is the skeleton key that opens innumerable over-the-counter wormholes everywhere.

Near the end, Arendt goes on to explain that the real drama isn't about the banal gray concrete of Nazi power, but the brilliant man who loved her slightly less than that power. How do you separate Heidegger's ideas from his ideology? How does Hannah (or Lily or Adam's mom) separate love of the former from revulsion for the latter? How does any man find common cause between his heart and his solar plexus? And between both and his dick?

For me, these are the questions raised and the dramas activated by Grote's Storm. Also there are great jokes! We're extending through July 27, so do join us at Camp Rorschach in cushy Georgetown where you'll find a veritable multiplex of crazy-fun shit. We just opened Skin of Our Teeth to critical acclaim and the Randy Baker's episodic project Dream Sailors launches tomorrow. You can read a profile of that one in today's Post as well.


*hyphenated soul Adam is trying to write a Sam-Shepard-meets-Tony-Kushner solo show called "American Shylock." We joke backstage that once he fails at this, he turns to the Irish half of his checkered lineage and writes a show called "American Shamrock."

**a treat for veteran readers I've complained about A Beautiful Mind and Proof before and it's precisely because they can't find any space between madness and insight, preferring instead to ape the same Promethean morality tale while fetishizing intellect along the way.

***to divine Interesting how that verb can simultaneously reflexive and active. You can divine odor from a gym sock, or you can divine the fuck out of a gym sock and worship the thing. Transubstantiation is in the hand of the beholder?

1 comment:

the artist formerly known as jess. said...

So, thought you should know: Rocco just blogged about your play. And you're mentioned as well...