Vanishing Points XXXIV © Michael Bristol

 

The terror of the unforeseen – summer, 2019

I am in the passenger seat; my wife is driving at her usual steady pace, heading north on I-91, just outside White River Junction, Vermont. It’s a beautiful late summer morning, the sun is shining, and there is hardly any traffic on the road. As we’re cruising along, I’m thinking about how to start a paper on Shakespeare’s Richard II, which I will be presenting at a conference in Philadelphia the following April. Writing about Shakespeare is fun for me. The scholars who read my books appreciate what I have to say, and sometimes they assign my essays to their graduate students. So when the invitation to contribute something to this conference came up, I was happy to accept. I’m pleasantly daydreaming about discussing the play with colleagues I admire and maybe getting together with an old friend I haven’t seen in years.

Something doesn’t sound right. As I glance over, I see an eighteen-wheeler, so close I can read the fine print on the door: Timber Transport. In that same instant I hear the sickening crunch of an impact. We swerve counter-clockwise and the full weight of the speeding truck slams into the driver’s side, shattering the window. Our car is pushed sideways at high speed for the next half mile. The screech of the tires being ripped off the wheels is deafening. There is no way to steer the car out of trouble or moderate our speed; the two of us are trapped and absolutely helpless. During the 30 or 40 seconds it takes before the truck stops, my only thought is how this will ruin my plans for the weekend.

What follows is a scene we have witnessed many times before, but this time we are not witnesses; we are the scene. Traffic slows down in both directions to have a look. Two men who saw the accident are running up the side of the road. Their t-shirts both say Geek Squad. One of them is on the phone, but the only word I can hear is “elderly.” The other one asks, “Is your wife all right?” And right here is the scar, the focus of the trauma. Did I act quickly enough to get her out of there? She’s climbing over the gearshift lever; broken glass is all over the front seat. There’s blood on her arm. I still have no idea how the accident happened that day, or why our lives were spared.

The first vehicle to arrive at the scene is the fire chief’s car from Norwich, Vermont. He’s kind, concerned about our well-being, and then he tells us he sees a lot of accidents like this. There’s a college nearby and most of the time, people are not so lucky. A few minutes later, two paramedics show up in their van. Their names are Josh, who spends a lot of time in the weight room by the look of him, and Jeremy, the nurturing one. They take our blood pressure and give my wife a Band-Aid for the small laceration on her arm, probably caused by a piece of flying glass. After a few minutes they realize we really are ok, vital signs normal and no sign of any injury. Josh says, “This is a win for us.” I don’t take time to think about what a loss would have looked like.

A few hours later I drive back home over the A-10 in a rented SUV. It’s tense; we don’t talk much. For the next month we’re sitting at home in Montréal without a car. Our street and our front yards have been dug up so that contractors working for the city can replace the old lead pipes that supply our fresh running water with copper tubing. Heat, dust, noise and uncertainty occupy our waking hours. I sleep a lot, and sometimes I wonder if I will ever feel safe in a car again. I have recurring morbid thoughts, sudden episodes of disorientation, constant fatigue, and hours of inexplicable sadness. During this time, I went out of my way to describe the events of that day to everybody I met. The story I told everybody was about resilience and poise and grace under pressure and how it might have been the car’s low centre of gravity that saved our lives. The details were all accurate; the whole narrative was an evasion of the truth. If I showed you the picture I took at the crash site, the side of the car doesn’t look that bad. The crushed and shredded panels on the driver’s side where my wife was sitting don’t show.

 

Vanishing Points XVIV © Michael Bristol

 

Unborn sorrow – winter, 2019 / 2020

Things didn’t really settle down until early November. By then we had a brand-new car paid for by insurance, with digital enhancements I still do not understand. I wasn’t that confident about driving, but managed to get back and forth to the gym and the library without much difficulty. Construction work on the street was finished. The State’s Attorney of Windsor County, Vermont, wrote to advise us that the driver of the truck signed a plea agreement to serve two years’ probation for negligent operation of a vehicle. I thought the sound of the first impact was fading away and I was ready to get my life back to normal. And for me, back to normal meant starting work on Richard II, even though the conference was still a good six months away. Things do not go according to plan.

Shakespeare’s play tells the story of King Richard’s overthrow and murder by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, later King Henry IV. Richard is the central character in the drama; his suffering and death are the source of its greatest poetry. When I suggested to a friend that Richard is the role I would really like to perform, his response was, “Yes, but don’t we all think Bolingbroke will be a better king?” Despite the absurdity of the idea I was a little offended, so I replied by quoting Richard to show him how great the King’s speeches are.

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court […] 2.3.155-163

What was it about a hollow crown where death keeps his court that stuck in my mind, and for that matter, why would I want to play the part of the sad, defeated king?

The suggestion that Bolingbroke would be a better king is a standard line of interpretation in Shakespeare scholarship. It appealed to me when I first heard lectures on the play in college. Dwight Eisenhower was President of the United States then, and we were beginning to hear great things about the junior senator from Massachusetts who was already campaigning for that office. A few years later Jack Kennedy gave the commencement speech at my graduation. It seemed the hope for a better king was about to be realized. Eighteen months later he was shot to death by Lee Harvey Oswald.

Many people look for a better king in Richard II, but others are more deeply moved by the passion and death of the sad king. In La Leçon de Rosalinde, Mustapha Fahmi has this to say about King Richard: “Selon lui, il n’y a pas de bon ou de mauvais leader. Il y a seulement des rois légitimes et des usurpateurs.” Fahmi’s point here is that the idea of “a better king” is simply not a meaningful expression. You don’t get to be king by doing something; it’s not something you deserve or achieve by your actions, and you are not answerable to anybody else. Richard gets to be king by being born to the right parents, and nothing further can be said. At the beginning of the play Richard says, “I was not born to sue, but to command.” You and I might find this sentiment odious – my students absolutely hated him – but in the story, Richard is the only character who can truthfully say this. If we’re offended by the idea, it might help to realize that what he is articulating here is a claim to self-sufficiency. And maybe that’s why the crazy idea I had of playing the King was attractive, even though I know he comes to grief in the end.

Richard II is a grief-stricken play. Grief is mentioned dozens of times, along with sorrow, weeping, tears, mourning and lament. Everybody comes to grief sooner or later. Grief is a complex word. It comes from old French grever, to bear a burden, which derives in turn from Latin gravis, heavy. It has links with grave and gravity and also Latin gravitas, which we use for ideas of dignity and seriousness. Shakespeare’s play is like a dictionary of grief, using the word to express harm, injury, pain, hardship, frustration, along with more familiar notions of loss and emotional distress. It also has the derivative sense of grievance, a sense of bitterness felt by a person of mediocre talents towards someone perceived as undeserving of their privilege. All this sadness is not a good fit with a political success story. Instead of cheering for Bolingbroke, maybe we’re supposed to be weeping for the overthrow and death of Richard.

I saw the beauty of the sad king for the first time in a performance of Richard II at The Stratford Festival, directed by Martha Henry, in 1999. The actor who played Richard was literally head and shoulders above every other man in the cast.  But it was the performance of the young Queen Isabel that showed me what I had missed about Richard. The role of the Queen was played by a sixteen-year-old woman named Maggie Blake. It’s a small part, with just over 100 lines, yet she was the emotional centre of the play, not only in the passion she brought to the poetry but even more in the sensuality of her presence.

In Shakespeare’s plays, women often experience grief with concrete, sensuous immediacy. The beauty of the sad king becomes visible for us in the eyes of the Queen. She has just learned that her husband has been defeated in a critical battle and she may never see him again. Confronted with the finality of a death foretold, the young queen turns her mind to the shared passion of their intimate life together. This is where grief takes up residence.

Queen:  . . . I know no cause
Why I should welcome such a guest as grief,
Save bidding farewell to so sweet a guest
As my sweet Richard: yet again, methinks,
Some unborn sorrow, ripe in fortune’s womb,
Is coming towards me, and my inward soul
With nothing trembles: at something it grieves,
More than with parting from my lord the king. 2.2.5-13

Maggie Blake’s performance showed us that the Queen knows what is beautiful about him. And what she knows about him invites us to love the sad king ourselves. The unborn sorrow, ripe in fortune’s womb, could be a child Bolingbroke cannot afford to let her bear. But in a larger sense, her unborn sorrow is foreboding about the unanticipated and the uncontrolled, reminding us that our existential condition does not allow space for self-sufficiency. They say there’s no escape from the past, but the Queen understands there’s no escape from the future either. No consideration will be given for their love.

Shakespeare’s historical plays are populated by men who cannot hear the voices of women, choosing instead to seek esteem and validation from other men. More often than not they come to grief, generally after inflicting considerable damage on the lives of other people. Bolingbroke is surrounded by men like this. In Martha Henry’s production, these men

were all heavy-bodied, all about the same height, similarly dressed in military gear, and when they would crowd together on the stage, it was sometimes hard to tell which one was Bolingbroke. The idea that he would make a better king disappeared in the gray banality of their ambition.

What then is the larger shape of this play? Is it a story of the triumph of a better king, or have we been witnessing a scapegoating ritual? Antonin Artaud might stage this play as theatre of cruelty:

“il ne s’agit pas de cette cruauté que nous pouvons exercer les uns contre les autres en nous dépeçant mutuellement les corps, en sciant nos anatomies personnelles . . . mais de celle beaucoup plus terrible et nécessaire que les choses peuvent exercer contre nous. Nous ne sommes pas libres. Et le ciel peut encore nous tomber sur la tête. Et le théâtre est fait pour nous apprendre d’abord cela.”

One last question then: What does it say about us that we resist the grief expressed in this play, displacing it into wishful thinking about a better king?

 

Vanishing Points XXXIV © Michael Bristol

 

The weight of this sad time – spring, 2020 

In the middle of February, one of the panelists for my session at the Shakespeare conference was in a car accident and suffered multiple injuries, which required emergency surgery. This was followed by three weeks of rehabilitation in a local hospital. Her husband advised me she would not be able to travel to Philadelphia in April.

A few weeks later, the conference was cancelled in response to the spread of SAR-CoV-2. About this time, Mustapha Fahmi was hospitalized with a severe case of COVID 19. He now writes to say he has been declared “healed” by public health. The worst is over, but he still faces a lengthy recovery. His wife and his two sons were also infected but did not require hospitalization.

On Friday, March 13, I celebrated my eightieth birthday with a group of close friends. As planned, we spent our time discussing Richard II.  We dispensed with our customary hugs of greeting. In hindsight I wonder if we were taking a greater risk than we realized. The next day I learned that my cousin Ted had passed away.

Teddy was a little boy when I was already married, with two children, getting started with my career. I never knew Ted as a man; he was not part of my adult life and I can’t say we were close friends. And yet I wept, surprised by the tears. I remember the day I showed him how to throw a baseball. It was a beautiful late summer morning, the sun was shining, and he wasn’t too sure about the baseball, which was pretty big for his four-year-old hand. He trusted me to show him how, and then he tried it himself. After a few attempts he got it and he laughed the way kids do when they accomplish something new for the first time.

I have an old picture of the twelve cousins, taken when the oldest of us were teenagers. If I showed you the picture, you would see an image of happy family life. We’re all smiling at our beloved uncle from Texas, standing just to the right of the camera, getting us to laugh. Teddy is standing between his big sister Veronica and his little brother Benjy. The picture doesn’t show everything. You can’t see the unpleasant racist jokes the beloved uncle from Texas has been telling all afternoon about the Latino citizens of Corpus Christi. You can’t see the legacy of alcoholism that’s going to destroy the life of the pretty fourteen-year-old girl over there on the far left. You can’t see how Teddy’s parents are struggling to pay the bills and keep food on the table. And you simply cannot imagine the fabulous wealth Teddy and Ben and Veronica are going to acquire in their adult life or how generous they will be in sharing it. All those things happened. But those things are only part of the story. Better to contemplate the simple joy of a happy childhood because that’s just as real as anything else I could tell you about.

My sister says, “You have to grieve; you need to grieve. Otherwise there is something crucial and unfinished in your life.” I think a lot of people would agree with her. For me it’s not the whole story. We’re never self-contained; we’re always incomplete. There are things that come from outside us that are essential to the self, like the language we speak, the things we learn and the stories we read. In that way we have never been self-sufficient. Everything you or I do is surrounded and shaped by things that are not you or me, an eighteen-wheeler that comes out of nowhere, destroys the car and almost ends my life.  My story is a mingled yarn, just like yours; this one is made out of personal memories braided together with strands from Shakespeare’s poetry, my sister’s email and letters from my editor.

Grief is not so much a task to be completed; it’s a burden you carry all the time for the value of everything that’s been lost, for sins of omissions, missed chances, and roads not taken. In that way grief is feeling the accumulated weight of all our losses and disappointments and all our regrets. It exists in our souls to challenge any vain hopes for self-determination. Grief compels us to understand what really matters, over against the irresistible power of contingency in our lives. And by acknowledging the cruelty of what the world can do to us, we are at the beginning of resistance to the unnecessary cruelty we habitually inflict on one another.

 

Vanishing Points IX © Michael Bristol

 

 

 

Old, battered copy of La Peste © Catherine Watson

 

Ainsi, la première chose que la peste apporta à nos concitoyens fut l’exil. Et le narrateur est persuadé qu’il peut écrire ici, au nom de tous, ce que lui-même a éprouvé alors, puisqu’il l’a éprouvé en même temps que beaucoup de nos concitoyens.

Albert Camus, La Peste

 

 

 

March 20, Friday

We’ve been in lockdown now since last Monday. It started slowly. I tried to go to the Cinéma du Parc on Sunday evening and found it closed. Couldn’t go to church in the morning as services were cancelled and I was glad somehow because that was one less thing I had to do. On Monday I found all cinemas and shows were closed till further notice. Schools and universities have been closed for more than a week, libraries for almost two.

So we wait at home. I’m not dependent on a paycheck – I’m over sixty-five – and I’m not afraid. For reasons I can’t explain, I don’t think I’ll catch COVID-19. There is nothing else on the news and almost nothing in the papers.

I told myself when I first felt the world close in around me, I’m going to use this time to catch up on everything I want to do. And write. I wanted to write something longer and more personal – an affair in psychiatry from long ago – but to write well I have to have a time and a place. I can’t find either. Then I thought, write about our collective trauma, COVID-19. Because writing is always about pushing back the things you can’t control.

 

March 23, Monday

Late last night I started reading La Peste, Camus. I read it once before, almost thirty years ago, for a private French course with an out-of-work journalist. I picked up an old battered copy in a second-hand bookshop. I’ve kept it through several moves.

This time I read La Peste in French because it’s the only copy I have. Or maybe I like to feel important.

It’s set in Oran, then a department of France, in the 1940s. Oran, Camus tells us, was a city without beauty or shades of meaning, an ordinary city, ugly, it has to be said, with its back turned to the sea. It was a city without pigeons, or gardens or trees. Its inhabitants lived to make money and to gratify simple desires, for love, amusement or comfort. After the plague was over, all agreed that events were out of place there.

Montréal has parks and trees, not many pigeons but sparrows, robins, blue jays, starlings, woodpeckers and cardinals, and countless gardens. It’s a city of neighbourhoods, each with its own assortment of family homes. Once you’ve lived here a while, you can guess who lives where or who used to live where, just by looking at the houses from the outside. Front walks and separate garages mean (or once meant) English; balconies and porches mean French; white or yellow brick probably means Italian. Montréal is a city where people are proud of their differences. Probably they don’t think a lot about money, but they do think about what they share with people in the next house or the next suburb, and sometimes what they don’t. They think a lot about rights.

Now it’s as if that complicated patchwork of history and culture has been taken away. There’s only one message on radio and TV, and that’s COVID – how fast it’s spreading, how close it is to us. We’re not supposed to go anywhere anyway, and we have nothing to do but listen. I walk around the local park or down the street and it’s as if there’s only one neighbourhood, and one street, and that’s here. Here is an eerie silence without traffic noise or ringing footsteps or the sound of people talking louder than they should. Garbage trucks pass at their appointed times and then the silence falls again.

I look out on the garden and it’s almost spring. There’s a hint of life in everything that grows, but all I feel is stillness. It’s as if I’m the last woman alive. Reading La Peste, I throw myself into the void.

 

March 24, Tuesday

Still nothing is happening. The shops are half-empty and on the main road, the few cars and buses travel singly. I send a few emails. I receive emails from people I’d never dreamt of hearing from – the President of Loblaws, the CEO of Hydro Québec. This virus has the power to change the smallest details of my everyday life. Yet I am well. I eat, sleep, read, write, and the restrictions multiply. After cinemas, theatres and concert halls, they close shopping malls, parks, now small businesses and all stores except grocery stores, supermarkets, pharmacies, pet stores, hardware stores.

We have a new language that justifies the closures and tells us how to act: social distancing, essential businesses, congregating in groups, respecting the guidelines, frontline workers, flattening the curve. When I first heard these phrases, I didn’t know exactly what they meant but I figured them out from what else I knew; and now when I go to the supermarket or the pharmacy or walk down the local shopping street, I have an explanation for the changes. I know why we are chivvied into lines, why I can’t put my points card or debit card into the hand of the cashier, why so few stores are open, why all the FOR RENT signs. I’ve become part of the new order. I shuffle my way through.

 

March 27, Friday

Because I hear so many statistics, I start looking them up on the Internet – La Presse, The New York Times and a website I found called worldometer. It gives daily figures, ranking countries according to the number of cases.

On March 18, there were 200,000 cases worldwide and 8,000 deaths. Canada had 100 new cases every day. By March 26, there were 492,085 cases worldwide and 22,176 deaths. In Canada there were 3,409 cases and 36 deaths. Globometer gave a tentative global mortality rate of 3%. The WHO estimate for March 3 (death rate) was 3.46%.

I began calculating my own death rates for different countries, but it didn’t take long for me to see that not everyone who will die has died, so that particular statistic means very little. Soon afterwards I asked myself, are reported cases tested cases? Probably. Reporting also has to play a part. On March 26, Russia had 840 reported cases and 3 deaths.

Saw a police car this morning on my way back from the laundromat, driving around looking for signs of trouble.

 

March 28, Saturday

They told us yesterday we’re entering a new phase: we’re at the beginning of the steep rise that will lead to the peak. A long speech on CBC radio after 4:00 p.m. yesterday from Mayor Valérie Plante, first in French and then in English. This is not a lockdown, not yesterday and not today. The bridges will stay open, but we should stay home. I don’t think it’s an order, but it’s a strong recommendation, and we are told not to go out of our area, especially not the western part of the city. A man, I believe the deputy director of public health for the city, tells us there is community transmission. The reason is the “snowbirds” – the people who didn’t go into isolation when they came back from the States or the South.

The forecast was for a sunny day, but it’s grey cloud cover and cold. I planned on going on the bus to Rosemount, to take a break from myself and look for local colour for the longer essay I want to write. The first scene would be on the corner of Boulevard Rosemont and Avenue des Érables. I tell myself I don’t want to feel more shut in than I do already, unable to write because I couldn’t leave the house. I tell myself I’ll go anyway, though I’m nervous. Can they try to stop me – the police – if they see me walking alone? On the other hand, if I go later, the risk will be greater because the virus is spreading. I decide to go, but I’ll stay apart.

The streets of Rosemount are desolate. I see one man, one woman, and it’s hard to know if they’re going somewhere or just using up time. Everything is shut: houses, stores, a cinema. It’s an area that’s become very chic with storefront windows displaying baby clothes and original home furnishings. On Boulevard Rosemont, a young man with a backpack and worn clothes asks me for change, and I don’t give it. Why not? Because I’m alone and he’s alone and if he did try to grab my purse, there wouldn’t be anyone around to help me. Aloneness breeds aloneness and an obstinate hardness of heart. I keep walking, pass someone who looks less in need.

I’ve begun Chapter 2 of La Peste. The plague has been declared and the gates of the city are closed. The residents of Oran are prisoners, and like most prisoners, time has become meaningless for them. They can’t live for their future release (and in the meantime focus all their strength and courage on surviving their imprisonment), because they’re sure that they’ll find out later on that their release date has been changed. They can’t live in the past, because thinking about the past brings only the taste of regret, and they know they can change nothing. They therefore live in a useless, floating present, wanting their old lives back.

We are more like people under relaxed house arrest. But like the people of Oran, we live without the structure of time. We cannot know how long present circumstances will last, and we don’t know how much of our past we’ll be able to keep once things return to normal. And each person or each family lives with a different loss – with separation from friends, wider family, or a lover, with the cessation of work responsibilities and an identity that goes with work, and without pay. Lives are overturned, but differently, and each person’s life, or each family’s life, is always about managing the disruption. Probably we are more closed in on ourselves and less likely to feel another person’s distress.

 

March 30, Monday

Towards the beginning of Chapter 2, there is a conversation between the principal character, Bernard Rieux, and a journalist from Paris, Raymond Rambert. Rieux is a doctor caring for plague victims, and Rambert wants a medical certificate stating that he is not infected so that he can leave the city and go in search of the woman he loves. Rieux refuses, first of all because the certificate would prove nothing – Rambert might already be infected but have no symptoms, or might become infected between leaving Rieux’s office and leaving the city – and second, because there are many men in Rambert’s position and he cannot make exceptions. Rambert tells Rieux that he denies their shared humanity and forgets that he is also responsible for individuals and their happiness. He accuses Rieux of speaking the language of abstraction.

Later Rieux sees that this is true. He is no longer moved by the cries of his patients or the pleas of their families. He enforces rules and follows procedures; he stands by while the police and paramedics forcibly remove patients from their homes. He feels no pity, and at the end of the day, his indifference is a consolation for the pain and suffering he has witnessed.

Rieux does not sign the certificate for Rambert. Soon afterwards he joins a team of volunteers organizing emergency services for the sick and dying. Later still, Rambert stops trying to escape the city and joins the volunteers.

 

March 31, Tuesday

What I miss most is news. I open up La Presse online and there are no new stories, only one short paragraph on COVID. Journalists have been laid off or put on reduced pay.

Now the US is the epicentre of the pandemic, especially New York. China has come out of it fairly well and its citizens are slowly getting back to work.

Later: I hear on the radio that the number of new cases is doubling every day in Canada. I don’t go on worldometer.

 

April 1, Wednesday

Over 2,000 cases in Québec. So I did check the figures. Went out yesterday, down to Avenue Mont-Royal on a clear, cold spring day. On the Plateau there are more people on the streets than here, some older than I am, and almost all smile as you go by. Then last night I thought I might have the virus – slight fever, slight nausea. But it lifted, then I coughed.

Worldometer, 01-04:

Total cases worldwide: 882,068; deaths 44,136
Canada: total cases, 8,672; deaths, 101

 

April 3, Friday

I turn on the radio just before 2:00 p.m. and already it’s the barrage of statistics. Legault is still speaking – or is it Arruda? It’s in translation. There are now 63 deaths in Québec attributed to the Coronavirus, but the increase compared to yesterday’s is less alarming than it seems, as yesterday there were cases under review. At 2:00 p.m. Doug Ford says that there could be between three and fifteen thousand deaths in Ontario, 600 deaths. Without public health measures, there could be as many as 100,000 deaths.

 

April 4, Saturday

This morning’s news: the next week and the next month will tell us if the increase in cases is beginning to slow. They’re talking about perhaps lifting restrictions in June.

But it is scary. After I got home last week from Rosemount, I realized that the stickiness I’ve felt in my throat for the last couple of days could be a sore throat. Later that day I looked in the mirror and saw red cheeks, as if I’d just come in from cold air. I had a slight fever, less than one degree, 97.1 Fahrenheit. But I slept, lighter of heart, because I’d been out earlier. Fever comes and goes. I don’t remember other illnesses being like this. Usually there’s a certain point where you know you’re sick, and if you’re at home you go to bed and hope to sleep it off. Maybe you can’t, but that’s because you get worse, and then the sickness – nausea, giddiness, stomach pain – blocks out worry and the effort to fight it off. This time I just don’t know. One minute I’m sure I have the virus and the next minute I think I don’t. I sleep, only to wake in darkness, knowing I’m alone.

 

April 6, Monday afternoon 

I have one more chapter of La Peste to read. At first it wasn’t easy to follow. I couldn’t always remember who was who, and I got lost in the long descriptions of the mood in Oran. But after the conversation between Dr. Rieux and Rambert, a story starts to emerge. Each character becomes involved in the life of the city, and you follow that person through the year of the plague. Which is not to say that everyone in the novel does good – one person probably does harm because he trades on the black market – but everyone lives a life and is changed by what he does.

Towards the end a new character appears: death, or the plague, or the scourge (le fléau) or later, evil. All tighten their grip on the city and all are one and the same.

INSPQ-Projections, May 5, 2020

 

April 8, Wednesday

Finished La Peste yesterday. Mr. Legault and Dr. Arruda released their projections for the month (published April 7):
pessimistic projection: cases, 59,845; deaths, 8,860
optimistic projection: cases, 29,212; deaths, 1,263

As the story draws to a close, the virus weakens; the sick begin to recover and the rats reappear. The authorities declare the plague as good as over, and after some delay, the gates are opened and the residents of Oran are reunited with lovers and family. But Bernard Rieux loses the two people he loved most, his wife, who dies of an unnamed illness, and his closest friend, who dies of the plague. He knows then that the plague will never be over for him; he knows as well that he will go on fighting, without hope and without inner peace. Rieux understands what other people do not: that the plague can always return, even in the midst of happiness and celebration, and even when victory seems assured.

 

April 13, Easter Monday

Main news over the weekend, deaths in seniors’ homes and long-term care. Thirty-one people died in one residence in a little over two weeks, five from COVID-19.

 

May 12, Tuesday

Today’s news on CBC, a report released on Friday by the Québec Public Health Institute (the INSPQ), and another prediction: if Legault continues with his plan to reopen schools and businesses in Greater Montréal later this month, there will be an additional 10,000 cases in Montréal by the end of June, an average of 150 deaths a day in July. This is excluding deaths in long-term care. The point: reopening should be deferred.

This isn’t the whole picture: over half the deaths in Canada are in Québec (5,169 in Canada, 3,013 in Québec; over half the deaths in Québec are in Montréal (1,919). Not just in Montréal, but predominantly in Montréal North, Rivière des Prairies, Villeray, Park Extension and Lachine – neighbourhoods where there is greater overcrowding, where people have no choice but to go to work, where they use public transport and travel on company buses, and where they cannot escape infection. We’re living in a city more sharply divided along economic lines than before the virus hit, and I wonder if this will be the final message we take from the pandemic – that the costs are not equally shared.

 

 

A quick search of the term populism in cyberspace reveals its increasing popularity (no pun intended) in the last decade, in both traditional and social media. The term democracy, on the other hand, became de rigueur a long time ago when royal heads started rolling in Europe and elsewhere. Both terms share semantic roots. Populism is derived from the Latin populus, or people, and democracy is derived from the Greek demos, which means the same. There is a great overlap in meaning but not in praxis.

Populism does not always equate with democracy. However, politicians, especially those who wish to bypass cumbersome procedures such as checks and balances, public consultations, parliamentary procedures, the judiciary, fair electoral practices and all the trappings of democracy, resort to the use of a carefully calculated language. They do so by speaking to the people directly, by eschewing the traditional press, by manipulating Internet and social media, and most importantly, by doing so in the vernacular. We all have memories of Princess Diana crouching at eye level to speak to little children. She did it most probably because she understood and loved children. This is what good teachers and good parents do with their little charges so as not to intimidate them. This is also what skilled politicians metaphorically do while seeking the attention and trust of the citizens whom they view as their charges.

President Obama was very skilled with this technique. Notice how he always addressed the people as “folks” in spite of his Harvard education and sophisticated vocabulary. Also note that his accent would go mildly south as in Southside Chicago where there is a very large Black population. Did I say Black? Sorry, I meant African American. Unfortunately, a shift in political terminology to refer to a particular community does not necessarily change the degree of their disenfranchisement.

President Trump, on the other hand, doesn’t have to make his speaking style more colloquial. He is a natural with feel-good words like “great,” “huge,” “beautiful” and so forth. He also does not shy away from crude words. The late Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi used verbal symbolism to very good effect. “Indira is India and India is Indira” was her slogan. For the sake of her illiterate constituents, her party’s symbol was a cow with a calf, depicting her as Mother India nurturing the masses, particularly the cow-worshipping Hindu masses. Her Italian-born daughter-in-law, Sonia Gandhi, studied very hard to improve her Hindi vocabulary and accent. This facilitated her rise to power after the assassinations of her husband and her mother-in-law.

Canadian politicians are also adept speakers, at least the good ones. “Fellow Canadians” is a very Canadian term, not too folksy, not too snobbish. Québec politicians, when they have to address Anglo Canadians in English, make sure to sprinkle a few French words here and there so as not to offend their real political base.

Going back to the term “folk:” this, of course, is a Germanic word. Did you know that it was Hitler who named the iconic Volkswagen? He wanted Porsche to design a car that would appeal to the common people, so he called it “the people’s car.” I wonder whether many of the flower children who protested against the Vietnam War from the windows of their beat-up Volkswagens were aware of its origin. Probably not.

Latin American populist politicians are very charismatic speakers. Ciudadano Presidente is the official style of address for Mexican presidents, making people think that presidents are just plain citizens like them. Compañero is a stock word with left-wing politicians. Originally it meant somebody with whom you share a crust of bread, like a life partner or a comrade in arms. Nowadays it merely means that politicians  want you to feel that you belong.

Back in India, Mahatma Gandhi renamed members of the so-called untouchable caste “Harijans,” or God’s children. Nowadays the correct terminology is Dalits, or oppressed people. Gandhi, as a shrewd lawyer turned politician, realized the importance of deconstructing the language of the caste system. Never mind that he did not want one of his sons to marry an “untouchable” woman. The rhetoric of politicians doesn’t always match their actions or beliefs.

Populists have been aware of the power of language since time immemorial, but now they have to deal with what the Italian press calls “il nuovo proletariado digitale.” This new digital proletariat is fed-up with weak institutions, rigged elections, a never-ending technological revolution, a precarious labour market, and in general, an unsettled world. To address these frustrations and fears, populist politicians rely on a highly personalized style of leadership. Italy and Hungary have recently acquired such leaders. Victor Orban rose to power in Hungary with the promise of safeguarding the country’s security and Christian values. Here the word Christian has nothing to do with the love preached by the son of a carpenter, but rather with the hatred preached by extreme right-wing patriarchs against immigrants, refugees and Muslims. Italy, the land that used to sing Avanti il popolo (Forward, people!) with internationalist enthusiasm, now shouts in cyberspace Fuori i clandestini (Out with illegal immigrants!) in fits of xenophobic rage.

An egregious example of conflating one problem with another in order to appeal to the masses is Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent neo-populist statement: “conflicts around the world are giving rise to new threats and emergencies: illegal migration, spread of terrorism and violent extremism, social disharmony and even the threat of nuclear war.”[1]

She also added that her country’s Buddhist majority was being swamped by Muslims. This appears to be her ahimsa way of turning a blind eye to the plight of 600,000 displaced Rohingya. She has shocked many of her admirers, but who knows what is really going on behind Myanmar’s bamboo wall?

William Shakespeare was an acute observer of people and a master spinner of words. He would have advised the “many great men that have flattered the people who ne’er loved them” to be more direct. He would have told them to simply say: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.” And the populace would have listened.

 

[1] The Associated Press, November 20, 2017

http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/myanmar-suu-kyi-blame-world-conflict-illegal-immigration-1.4409921

 

In a quiet moment in a café in Montréal this past week, I sat down and asked myself why the concept of sustenance as a right has taken a back seat? What is the reason for our inability to connect the dots and therefore connect the issues? Is it acceptable to scatter and disperse our energies over a number of issues and not unite on root causes? I started scribbling down some notes. In a nearly purgative moment, I realized that I had managed to spew out nearly twenty pages of notes on the S-pen on my Android, without stopping. Here they are, then.

Why “sustenance” gets sidelined in these times

Our impetus to get to the root of a problem is often curbed by our enthusiasm and the immediacy of a victorious moment. Positive forces override the negative. We rejoice when we are vindicated on a single issue. We have won one battle. We wait unconsciously for the next one. We go from one issue to another.

Sometimes the negative forces triumph. Then we are engulfed in the dastardliness of an act, and mobilization against the offending forces becomes a matter of course, an immanent reflex. We congregate in solidarity. A demonstration locks down traffic on rue Ste-Catherine. A mosque witnesses a massacre of cruel proportions. Almost the entire population is moved, ashamed, disgusted, and expresses extraordinary support for the community. Two weeks after the carnage, once again a bill proposes a renewed discussion on national identity. What is the connection between National Identity and Global Capital, we may ask? Who is behind revamping these debates? And why?


A mosque witnesses a massacre of cruel proportions. Almost the entire population is moved, ashamed, disgusted, and expresses extraordinary support for the community. Two weeks after the carnage, once again a bill proposes a renewed discussion on national identity.


A nasty homophobic incident happens in the neighbourhood, and people stand by the victim, like a rock. Police misconduct, which seems to be increasing exponentially against indigenous communities, especially women, galvanizes us.

In Paris, a 22-year-old Black man gets assaulted by police with batons. His wounds show evidence of sexual assault causing anal tearing. The police finally say it is “unintentional rape.” Paris lights up as the disenfranchised riot again.

Standing Rock mobilizes us. Black Lives Matter brings us together in Cabot Square, Montréal. Then all falls quiet as the lines of defence held by indigenous protesters and their supporters are bulldozed and their camps are removed. We launch a campaign against Breitbart, the “alt-right” mouthpiece that has launched a crafty campaign to mobilize right-wing populism. Some of us succeed in informing advertisers that they are supporting racists and misogynists. The ads get pulled. These are big victories in our world of “issues.” But after the outrage comes a period of calm. A poignant lull. Until the next issue comes along. Issues that touch us and yet allow us to move on to the next issue, which could also be profoundly disturbing. We do not always find the connection between one issue and another. We cannot always trace things down to their root cause.

Address the root cause? Or the symptoms?

As an engineer, I am trained to look for a root cause, not just the symptom. If we wish to prevent a flaw or problem from recurring, we keep asking WHY it occurs – at least 7 to 10 times. When the Challenger exploded, the immediate wisdom was that an untested O-ring was the guilty party. It caused flammable gas to escape, which ignited on the vehicle’s re-entry. Was the specification for the temperature range of the O-ring clearly stated? Was the specifying engineer knowledgeable about the temperatures that could be attained during re-entry? Were the insulation tiles adequately secured to provide the insulation required? Also, was a specifying engineer fully aware of all the failure modes? And in that case, did the engineer inform his/her superiors? If so, did the superiors get overruled by senior management? Was there a rush to launch this vehicle on a particular symbolic date? Arriving at the root cause is often a long drawn-out process of asking WHY several times. Treating the symptoms rarely solves the problem. It delays resolution while offering what is always a temporary reprieve. This discussion on sustenance requires us to pursue a discussion on the larger scope of systemic change based on a vision of society, and not simply travel from one issue to another, however just.

Steve Corey, Midnight at the Oasis – From flickr under creative commons license: Attribution, NoDerivatives.

Right to drinking water 

Let’s put root cause diagnosis aside for now and examine the issue of what really constitutes sustenance. The thematic statement for this particular issue states the following: “Sustenance implies minimum nourishment. Physical and intellectual. Adding agency, encouragement, facility to subsist and survive.” Let us consider water as a fundamental requirement for sustenance.

According to an article on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) website, “Two-thirds of all First Nation communities in Canada have been under at least one drinking water advisory at some time in the last decade. The numbers show that 400 out of 618 First Nations in the country had some kind of water problem between 2004 and 2014.”[i] The same article further notes, “Chronic government underfunding of water systems is to blame for the lack of progress, said Emma Lui of the Council of Canadians. She said a national assessment commissioned by the federal government found $470 million was needed per year over 10 years.” Is it a priority for the Government of Canada to spend 470 million per year for the next ten years? Is there a vision to ensure this particular aspect of sustenance? Possibly not! The government has other priorities, carefully cultivated for the needs of those classes whose interests are significantly more important to it than those of indigenous communities or the rest of the 99% of the population.


Perhaps the notion that indigenous people living on reservations should have the same constitutional right to clean drinking water as non-indigenous people has not really dawned on the city people! Can you imagine the Borough of LaSalle in Montréal not having clean water for two decades?


The issues are also complicated, many will explain. There is Native sovereignty. There are broken treaties. There is the Indian Act and all its amendments. There are broken communities. Alcoholism, suicides, misappropriation of funds – all the usual deflections that a settler state finds appropriate to lay the blame on. There are remote communities where contractors do not want to work to build water treatment plants. Difficult to haul materials there, they say. In the end, it is not a priority and a settler state will do anything to wish it away, until and unless all “Indians” become Canadians! Does anybody really want to solve the problem at the root? This is an issue that could perhaps be solved. But there is an institutional gridlock in place. It goes beyond the single issue of water rights. Perhaps the notion that indigenous people living on reservations should have the same constitutional right to clean drinking water as non-indigenous people has not really dawned on the city people! Can you imagine the Borough of LaSalle in Montréal not having clean water for two decades? Indigenous communities simply do not have political and economic clout. They are powerless. They are like a shadow of guilt that appears from time to time over the skies of Canada. Root cause is never reached. Sustenance is bypassed.

The Vietnam War as a turning point 

Radicals and dissenters reached a period of success and credibility after the Watergate scandal and the end of the Vietnam War. Civil rights, Black consciousness, social revolution, alternate lifestyles had assumed centre stage, and an intellectual overthrow of the family-centred, family-values oriented conservative mindset had occurred. A victory of some sort had been won. The US ruling class and whatever it represented to the world was essentially defeated in Vietnam, physically and morally. A US president had been impeached. Over 60,000 GIs had come back in body bags. (Of course, the fact that 1.5 million Vietnamese and Indo-Chinese people had perished was not of consequence to most Americans, really.) Many conscientious objectors had crossed the border into Canada, who by now have thousands of grandchildren growing up as Canadians. A state of victory had been proclaimed.

The “paper tiger” was shown up for what it was! Imperial might was not just military. It was also the pinnacle of a complex system involving industry, employment, livelihood, financial definitions, finance export, banking systems and cultural hegemony. All this had been exposed for what it was and still is. The proclamation of victory by the majority of the masses was actually a dulling moment. A pivotal point of numbness had been achieved. Exuberance was followed by complaisance. The idea of analyzing and understanding the comprehensiveness of institutional and systemic controls was put on the back burner. Complaisance was kind of inevitable after this “victory.” The contradiction between labour and capital, between owners and owned, between the haves and have-nots – or to put it very simply, the root cause of inequality, poverty, loss of buying and saving power – was set aside.

The universities that gave birth to dissent were also the ones where academics now had relatively new freedoms (this is much after all the post-HUAC,[ii] post-McCarthy period). Courses and curriculum were being incubated that essentially gave birth to cultural politics. Academics had started to redefine the entire Left perspective from a variety of ways – away from the fundamental contradiction between labour and capital. Social groups decided to identify themselves as class conscious groupings, and the meaning of class was being redefined or appropriated.

Issues and identities 

Actually, at the end of the Vietnam War and perhaps even earlier, the politics of cultural identity became an easy outlet, as long as it identified white patriarchy as the main enemy. So every confabulated issue that could rally a few dozen people became a cause that could mobilize against the symbolic image of the misogynist beer guzzler who sat at the end of the day in front of a TV and spewed out ignorance about the rest of the world. In effect, Carrol O’Connor’s role as Archie Bunker in All in the Family became the classic target to diss the white working-class family and get a great laugh out of it. Homophobia, environmental waste and pollution, racism and white privilege, and biblical white supremacy, anti-evolutionary groups became the easy target and basis for education and organizing. And you could always add on First Nations rights, settler colonization, eco-feminism, anti-science, the drug and health insurance lobby and also the chemical, GMO, military-industrial complex, and eventually even human rights as a worldwide concern, to teach about and mobilize around. Amnesty International, a dour, boring, geopolitically-motivated NGO, gained left-wing celebrity status. Sexual preference and gender orientation became strong lines of segregation within the movement for social change.


In an unintended sort of way, academia gave birth to the politics of identity – and issues that had to do with economic exploitation, colonization, deprivation, inequality and poverty were consequently either sidelined or taught by a dwindling group of “orthodox Marxists,” for the most part.


This is not the place to debate these issues in detail, but it is clear that people came together more around issues and went back to their separate enclosures afterwards, rather than coming together to challenge the system that spawned the issues. A universal enemy had been consciously or incoherently targeted. No wonder the white working class and middle class had a brooding feeling that when all was all said and done, they were being put against the wall.

On the one hand, there were orthodox theorists who stuck to their guns (Kantian morality or Hegelian idealism) and insisted that the classical transitions in European social development were universally applicable. That feudalism was followed by capitalism. That the bourgeoisie was universally liberalist and was destined to outwit the barons and that this was true of the whole world. That workers were paramount and peasants and lumpen-proletarians had to be tutored and led. On the other hand, there were the post-colonial theorists who asserted that subaltern consciousness could not be absorbed into the Eurocentric framework. That cultural identities, super-structural consciousness of folklore, rituals, methods of resistance and ways of organizing were not necessarily universal. That the West could not impose its exalted philosophies on the East. In an unintended sort of way, academia gave birth to the politics of identity – and issues that had to do with economic exploitation, colonization, deprivation, inequality and poverty were consequently either sidelined or taught by a dwindling group of “orthodox Marxists,” for the most part.

The real corporate conglomerates, meanwhile, sat around, smiled and even donated here and there to causes like the inner-city housing blight, anti-KKK-church-bombing-related charities, AIDS foundations, women’s self-help causes and refugee relief. Not that these issues were not important. They were significantly necessary, but they were all done at the expense of looking away from something else. Liberalism had arrived and was on fire! Neo-liberalism was about to arrive!

The real plight of labour (those who create value in the economy) as the fundamental element in creating tangible products during an eight-hour work shift that would then be costed and priced and put into competition in the “market place,” became a side issue. Except for traditional Marxists, nobody was interested in how the “worker” was a transferable commodity between capital and the worker’s labour. If he or she worked eight hours a day, and the owner of the factory chose to keep a gross profit margin of let’s say 25%, then two hours of the shift went straight into the “contribution.” To put it another way, this mode of production could have allowed the worker to go home at the end of six hours and be paid adequate wages for sustenance, if the owner took home no profits! Six hours was enough for his/her sustenance! Sustenance was directly counterposed to profitability. More profits, less sustenance.


The issue of conflict between those who produce and those who own the means of production was not vigorously discussed. The issue itself of sustenance for the individual was forgotten.


Of course, this kind of logic is untenable, is it not? We are bombarded with questions: “Who manages the business? Who organizes the cash flow, the banking, the floor management? Who takes on the risks and thinks of innovation?” The issue of conflict between those who produce and those who own the means of production was not vigorously discussed. The issue itself of sustenance for the individual was forgotten. The issue of the transferability of labour and capital in the societies we live in was made passé. In fact a recent OECD document[iii] no longer talks about human labour and capital. It refers to “human capital.” The human input has become so marginal in the new economy that it is agglomerated. This article goes on to suggest that with the evolution of technology, a speeded up, knowledge-based “human” can actually substitute the “labour” aspect and transform itself into “human capital.”

As the Reagan-Thatcher behemoth rolled in (somewhat surreptitiously) and further disenfranchised the working poor, the stage was set for identity and cultural politics to be the main staple of humanities and social science education in the universities. Actually the “alt.righters” are quite correct in stating this. Academia had spawned a libertarian soapbox of sorts, where anything but the real issue was good for a 3-credit march to a baccalaureate. The essence of “free trade” and globalization, meanwhile, was being quietly seeded in the soil outside. The Left was oblivious that within their own fold, fissiparous trends had set roots. The lowering of material and labour costs, de-regulation, making taxes look like anti-people legislation, the notion that tariffs needed to be removed and the concept of “trickle-down” wealth was carefully nurtured. People bought into it because a cathartic social change in the West was inconceivable. Gradual change, peaceful change, social democratic change was the unwritten mantra. Meanwhile, in the wake of atrocious experiments in lab-grade socialism as with the Khmer Rouge, the totally chaotic attempt at a “cultural revolution” in China, and lastly, the collapse of the Soviet Union (which had by then completely degenerated into a ruthless, bureaucratic state capitalist entity), left-wing social revolutionaries were disoriented and marginalized. They were ready to tag along anywhere. And tag along they did, with identity and cultural politics. The fundamental contradiction between labour and capital was put aside.

The unions and students, you ask?

For those of you who may remember, during the May ’68 strikes that paralyzed France, workers with spanners in their hands came to the barricades in large numbers. The workers of Renault and other auto manufacturers, along with steel workers and their unions came with large banners and stood with the students. It is symbolic that they had their spanners in their hands, because the technology then necessitated that a spanner or a bolt-tensioner was an essential tool in the hands of the worker. So, when they struck work, as in a “tool down strike,” they brought things to a halt. In today’s technology, a worker most often does not need a spanner. A robot comes and does the torqueing after the worker has pressed a button or placed parts in a carriage. The knowledge of the worker is embedded in software or firmware. Not necessarily a bad thing, in my opinion. It facilitates consistent quality. But from the larger issue point of view, the worker is much more marginalized.

Later on, when “free trade” morphed into “globalization,” the students who had come through a generation of identity and cultural politics in universities began to understand that something was fundamentally wrong. Because factories were closed down, entire city blocks were in a state of abandon, parents no longer had sustainable home economies, tuition fees had skyrocketed and education itself was being made into a class-based privilege rather than a right, household savings had dwindled, and the very real possibility of not going to college was looming – the resistance against free trade and globalization started. In cities across Europe, Turkey, Japan, Chile, Brazil, Seattle and Quebec City, riots against the G7 broke out.

Yes, there were unions in some of the marches, but they did not approach the barricades. Actually, there was very little co-ordination or interest on the part of the unions. Their politics were invariably centred on economistic struggles. Steelworkers’ unions historically were rarely interested in equal opportunity for women, let alone abortion rights. Students and young people did not mobilize around factory gates as they had before when workers were picketing. (In the ’70s and ’80s, there was widespread community support for garment workers’ strikes in England and taxi workers’ mobilization in NY, and a new labour militancy was built. These were industries where exiles and migrants suffered enormous indignity, and the ruthless working conditions and built-in racism of the employers spurred the community to rally around the workers.)


In many respects, the defeat of the US in Vietnam resulted in a lackadaisical Left, forgetting about the political vision of a sustainable society.


No preparation 

So, in this new context of globalization, students and youth had very little preparation for understanding the fundamental contradictions in society. Instead they were quite well-versed on the environment, cultural rights, group consciousness and affiliation on gender issues, sexual preference, solidarity with migrant labour, anti-racist coalitions, anti-war mobilizations, and forms of anti-capitalism that were far removed from the factory gates and more interested in the shatter-potential of attractive glass facades of head offices. Globalization, the Davos cabal, the banking mafia and the origins of the IMF-engineered meltdown led to calls for grassroots democracy and “Arab Springs,” which in turn inspired the Occupy Movement. Once again, workers’ unions were not really present. The economy had also evolved from a manufacturing-driven economy to a service/leisure/knowledge-driven economy. The most intense presence, if any, came from health workers’ unions and other service-oriented industries like hotel, transportation and postal workers. The traditional unions lent their names but had little presence. Basically they became politically listless.


Sustenance is a demand for just payback for the value created at the point of work, and the right to survival and leisure.


So, the pacifists and anti-war activists went back to their tombs of despair – the universities – and taught an eclectic mix of subjects, vaguely pointing to the evil system we all inhabited. Everyone was fed up with foreign wars, and the embryonic Right was born out of the insults and defeat in Vietnam. In many respects, the defeat of the US in Vietnam resulted in a lackadaisical Left, forgetting about the political vision of a sustainable society. Often obscurantist and sometimes valuable affiliations and identities became a sandbox for academic meanderings.

Sustenance is a demand for just payback for the value created at the point of work, and the right to survival and leisure. Leisure is a right. Personal liberation is a right. Freedom! Freedom for an individual of discrete physical and intellectual contours and dimensions in a co-operative society is a right. Free association is a right. Sustenance is not debatable.


[i] http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/bad-water-third-world-conditions-on-first-nations-in-canada-1.3269500 (October 14, 2015)

[ii] House Un-American Activities Committee – see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_Un-American_Activities_Committee

[iii] See the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development website: http://www.oecd.org/site/progresskorea/44109779.pdf

theatre

Approximately one hundred and fifty years ago, a remarkable play featuring a Muslim character who hates himself and who embodies what those in power at the time considered to be the villainous opposite of what was considered civilized, true and just, ran on New York stages for several weeks, as it did in other English-speaking cities on both sides of the Atlantic.  Audiences in New York – one of the financial and cultural capitals in the Anglophone world – were aghast yet stimulated by the depiction of this Muslim protagonist. Much English-language debate, discussion, accusation and polemic in both North America and Great Britain emerged about Islam, those who display violence in their rebellions against imperial power, violence emanating out of self-hatred, and the precarious and tenuous situation of white women. Such a description may prompt contemporary audiences to think of Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced, the 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning play currently running in over 50 professional theatres in Europe and North America, in which audiences are treated to a violent, self-hating South Asian Muslim male protagonist. Actually, the play in question is melodramatist Dion Boucicault’s Jessie Brown, performed during the Indian Mutiny/Rebellions in 1857-58 and staged in New York and Denver, and in various cities in England in 1858.

In order to analyze the fragile and contested role of Muslims as they have been represented on stage and screen, it would be helpful to note the history of South Asians in the U.S. theatre space, from the 1858 moment to the present, with an emphasis on how tracking the figure of Muslims opens up a critique of the limits of recognition within U.S. theatre spaces.

 

Between Arab and South Asian

In our contemporary age, tropes about Islam and Muslims in the U.S. frequently conflate “Muslim” with “Arab,” whereas the vast majority of Muslims in the world, historically and in the present day, exist in South and Southeast Asia, and the experiences of South and Southeast Asian Muslims are quite particular to a context of syncretistic identities, minoritization, and a multi-religious cultural landscape. In U.S. theatre, South Asians have frequently been cast as Arabs and rarely the other way around (with a few exceptions), yielding a particular asymmetry in the representational reservoir of Muslims in the U.S. imagination. It is hard to find images of specifically South Asian Muslims – qua South Asian and Muslim – and their particular identities and cultures outside a Security and Terror maintenance complex, embodied earlier by Boucicault’s play.

With the appearance of Ayad Akhtar’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning Disgraced, as well as plays like The Who and the What and The Invisible Hand, the U.S. space does now feature characterizations of South Asian Muslims on U.S. stages, authorized by and executed by Muslims. Certainly Akhtar did not singlehandedly bring into being theatre by and about Muslims – many artists and organizations (including Chicago’s Silk Road Rising, New York’s Noor Theatre and San Francisco’s Golden Thread) have been doing this for a number of years now, before and after 9/11. It is rather that the recognition of this particular play about a self-hating South Asian Muslim and his violence in New York, the metropolitan centre of American theatre, compels an identification of the broader history behind the role of Muslims in U.S. theatre history.

 

South Asian Muslims and U.S. Theatre History

This brings me back to Dion Boucicault’s play, Jessie Brown, or the Relief at Lucknow, which depicts the lives of Europeans in India during the 1857-58 rebellion at the time of the siege at Lucknow. Although Boucicault conflates events and personages from Kanpur and Lucknow, the narrative follows what most Anglophone readers would have encountered in the news, since he wrote the play entirely from news reports. The play, based just outside Lucknow, features a group of fearing-the-worst Europeans, including the young and single Jessie Brown, a Scottish girl, and Nana Sahib, a historical Hindu Brahmin figure, presented here as a fantastical, fanatical composite Muslim who happens upon Mrs. Campbell, the widow of an officer. He manages to express his love for her and interest in her for his harem. Her rejection of him sets the stage for a melodrama, including brave plans for the Europeans (including a non-violent Christian cleric) to defeat the Indians in their rebellion. Though Nana Sahib is defined by Islam, he does ask, “Did Allah send the Briton here to make us slaves, to clutch us beneath his lion’s paw, and to devour the land? Inshallah! The voiceless word of Allah has swept over the people, and it says, ‘Sufferers, arise, ye shall be free!’”[1] The final third act shows the Europeans awaiting sure execution, with some experiencing delirium, including Jessie who has visions of Scottish highlanders saving them. Lo and behold, the Scottish highlanders do save them, and the Indians are defeated.

Jessie Brown contributes to a discourse that became hegemonic in powerful circles throughout the Anglophone world of the nineteenth century: namely that Muslims were aggrieved in the 1857-58 rebellion because of their religion being violated, and were the ones leading the way toward the violent uprising. The nineteenth-century centrality of religion in understanding the resistance to power – another continuity that lasts to the present-day condition of Muslims in the post-colonial world – opens up a complex history of colonialism; but what is important for a history of theatre is that, from this point onward through the mid-twentieth century, South Asian Muslims after 1858 have occupied a security-state framework (embodied in Boucicault’s representation), if they are represented at all. What also endures is the elusive quest for white women, and the self-hatred of Muslims, as depicted by Achmet (portrayed as the evil Muslim henchman to the evil Nana Sahib in Boucicault’s play), who concurs with the assertion that “these black rascals (laying siege) are mere scum” by responding: “We are scum.”[2]

If we move forward 150 years to Disgraced, we find a play meant to be staged for approximately ninety minutes without an intermission. Spread out over four scenes, written to take place in New York City in 2011-12, the play opens with Amir, a 40-year-old South Asian Muslim American corporate lawyer, dressed in a blazer, shirt and tie on top, along with boxers and no trousers. Amir is posing for his white American wife, Emily, a young and rising artistic talent, painting a portrait to be called Study after Velazquez’s Moor, based on the original Diego Velazquez painting, Portrait of Juan De Pareja, a Moorish slave in the seventeenth century. The audience learns that Emily has been motivated to paint this portrait after both of them experienced an episode of racism directed against Amir in a restaurant. Reflecting on that episode of twenty-first century racism, she is motivated to explore the gap between how people such as Juan De Pareja in the seventeenth century, and Amir in her own life, have been perceived. In the initial scene, the audience also learns about Amir as a cutthroat, ambitious lawyer, and meets his nephew, Hussein, who has changed his name to Abe Jensen, to ward off racism. As a young teenager politicized primarily by harassment and racism, Abe/Hussein displays a commitment and relationship with his Muslim community, a relationship Amir doesn’t share as a secular apostate who enjoys pork, booze, and in his terms, “intelligence.” Amir explains his worldview to Abe/Hussein by sharing a story of his boyhood, when his Muslim mother found out about his Jewish girlfriend and tried to instil in him a hatred for Jews. Ever since then, when he realized that a Muslim identity for him involved such hatreds, he decided to abandon Islam completely.

Two weeks later, Amir faces a personal crisis when he is misrepresented in the New York Times as working on a legal team defending an imam – one whom Emily and Abe/Hussein had been imploring Amir to help – as the imam from their local community accused of terrorist actions. Amir is aghast at being associated with an imam, particularly seeing how it might affect his Jewish-owned law firm, where he would soon be considered for partnership. During this scene, we also meet Isaac, a Whitney curator who was considering Emily’s work for an upcoming exhibition. Here Emily’s interest in Islam, and particularly the history of Islamic art and its impact on Western artistic traditions, piques Isaac’s interest in her work as an artist.

The third scene opens with the set of tensions established earlier beginning to unravel as the scene unfolds, from Emily’s nervous expectations of positive news from Isaac about a Whitney exhibition, to Amir’s angered entry into the apartment after a long day’s work. Amir recounts (over several glasses of whiskey and after one smashed glass) that the law firm’s partners were investigating his background, asking him about his place of birth, and were no longer interested in offering him a partnership. Given that he changed his name from Amir Abdullah to Amir Kapoor and falsely listed India as his parents’ birthplace, the firm’s leadership suspects that Amir has misrepresented himself. The historical challenge of translating the partition of colonial India, the region of his parent’s birth – Lahore, now Pakistan – becomes a real-life obstacle to his advancement, since the partners now suspect him of hiding his Muslim identity.

To add to the mix of rising tensions, Amir had forgotten that Isaac and his African American wife, Jory, were invited to dinner that evening. Quickly, Amir and Emily prepare for their friends’ arrival and the evening begins unremarkably, accompanied by drinks and pleasantries. The tension runs into new directions when Isaac announces that Whitney is going to accept Emily’s work in an exhibition. At one level this is cause for celebration, but a mention of Emily’s work in progress – her portrait of Amir – sparks the smouldering fires of Amir’s resentment at being ill-treated at his workplace, and spurs him to launch into a few diatribes against Islam as a whole: apostates being punishable by death, the alleged sanctioning of wife-beating in the Qur’an, and other assorted targets in his arsenal against Islam. Each point he makes is countered by Emily (who is aware of the subtle and ambiguous nature of much of the Qur’an and early Islamic tenets usually cited by Islamophobes), and by Amir. The issue that raises tensions to a higher level, though, arises out of Amir’s attempts to explain the tribalism that he feels he was reared by, and which he is still fighting to overcome through his committed apostasy. He explains to Isaac how the tribalism of the Muslim world is matched by the tribalism of Zionist Jews, particularly on the question of Israel and Palestinian conflicts.

Meanwhile, in a private moment, Jory and Isaac reveal that Jory has been offered the partnership and is trying to find a way to tell Amir. As Jory and Amir step out to buy champagne to defuse tensions, Isaac and Emily share a moment alone in which the audience learns of their previous affair. Though Isaac doesn’t push her too hard, he mentions that if she hadn’t cheated with him, she would have likely cheated with someone else. As Isaac tries to kiss Emily, Jory and Amir, fresh from the troubling revelation that Jory will soon become a partner, enter to find Isaac and Emily in an embrace. As this conflict continues to intensify, Amir lashes out at Jory and Isaac, who exit, leaving Amir and Emily alone in their apartment. Finally, as Amir confronts her about her affair with Isaac, he explodes into a rage and hits Emily several times – listed in the published stage directions as “uncontrolled violence as brutal as it needs to be in order to convey the discharge of a lifetime of discreetly-building resentment.”[3]

The fourth and final scene shows Amir packing up the apartment, noticeably single and preparing to move out. Emily and Abe/Hussein enter, with Abe now returning to his given name Hussein, and recounting continued stories of harassment by the FBI. Amir attempts, unsuccessfully, to engage in conversation with Emily (who has dropped the charges of assault), and claims that she had a part to play in how their lives had transformed in their marriage. The play ends with Amir pleading with Emily to acknowledge him, stating: “I just wanted you to be proud of me. I want you to be proud you were with me.”[4] Emily does not respond to this entreaty, says good-bye and leaves the apartment for good. The final image the audience sees is Amir finding the finished version of Study after Velazquez’s Moor, unwrapping it and gazing into the painting, seeing a regal, immaculately dressed version of himself from the waist up.

The protagonist represents the violence of hitting back and striking back to the slave-owner, the imperialist, the racist, and all those violent forces building up inside Amir’s own boiling subjectivity. An interview with Madanis Younis, included in the 2013 published version of the play, discusses how the act of violence at the end is “an act of political violence, that is to say a colored male subject who is acting out on a white female love object through violence, and in a way rife with political valences.”[5] The play’s lack of resolution at the end rests on the playwright’s interest in leaving the resolution to the audience.

Disgraced functions as a benchmark against which we may read historical change. Although many other plays have emerged in the last hundred and fifty years, this play’s recognition commands serious attention. In Disgraced, in the post-9/11 twenty-first century, the Muslim characters are not wearing glorious robes with hanging scimitars and colourful turbans, but turn out to be their globally-situated bourgeois equivalents in the U.S. imagination: violent Muslims whose faith and existential problems are signs of trouble brewing. As one of the characters in the play remarks to Amir after a heated exchange, “there is a reason why they call you people animals.”

In the years between Jessie Brown and Disgraced, much has certainly changed in North American society. After approximately forty years of official exclusion from U.S. citizenship on account of the state-level racialization of Asians in the U.S. and Canada, 1965 became a watershed year because immigration quotas began to include progressively higher numbers of Asians, including South Asians. From the mid-1960s to the present day, South Asians of all religions, particularly South Asian Muslims, have established communities and patterns of integration and visibility in line with the broader changes in North American society.

 

South Asians in North American theatre history

Within North American theatre history, South Asian Muslims have been conspicuously absent in the post-1858 period. The emergence of formal Orientalism was defined primarily through a focus on Sanskrit theatre, with North American universities following European leads, teaching Sanskrit as well as staging Sanskrit plays from the 1890s onward. Arthur W. Ryder’s translation of Sakuntala was first staged at Berkeley in 1907 and in New York in 1905. Ryder’s translation of the Mricchikatikam, or the Little Clay Cart as it is often known in English, was staged in Berkeley in 1907, in New York’s Neighborhood Playhouse in 1924, and in Los Angeles in 1926. During this time, when India gradually came to be associated with Sanskrit and the classical world in the U.S., Muslims from India disappeared for the most part from view on U.S. stages.

In post-1965 theatre history, South Asian Muslim characterizations were planted, such as Shishir Kurup’s 2007 Merchant on Venice, which includes an Indian Muslim (and a Bohri Muslim at that) in the role of Sharukh, the Shylock equivalent whose Indianness and Muslim minoritization feature heavily in the play. Other prominent plays include Rehana Mirza’s 2003 Barriers depicting inter-generational family drama in light of post 9/11 hate crimes against Muslims. Also significant is Wajahat Ali’s 2006 Domestic Crusaders, about a Pakistani-American family in post-9/11 northern California. These plays were all preceded by Aasif Mandvi’s 1996 Sakina’s Restaurant, a one-man show about immigration to the U.S., and significantly, about an Indian Muslim family, which was constructed, written and produced in the 1990s and 2000s. From then on, the emergence of plays like Disgraced, The Who and the What, and The Invisible Hand by Akhtar fit into the history of American theatre and the trajectory from melodrama to naturalism to realism and to our present-day predicament. Such history solidifies a history of assimilation within the history of the U.S., which features the emergence of the bourgeois and of cultural capital and class evidenced in the dinner parties, the politics of the family unit, and the broader critique of political economy. Such history parallels East Asian American, African American, Mexican American, Latino American and Middle Eastern American histories in the U.S. space as a history of assimilation. In light of this history of assimilation, three points of departure enable questions about different histories and potential futures outside of assimilation.

 

Assimilation and Beyond

Are the depictions of Muslims on U.S. stages confirming or challenging canonical guidelines in U.S. theatre? Does the bourgeois emphasis on family, dinner parties, inter-generational conflicts, economic mobility, assimilation into spaces of power and recognition, and critiques of political economy add more content to solidify those canons, or does it transform those canonical reference points?

Second, what role does white female sexuality play in the travails of representing Muslims? The protagonist of Disgraced, like the protagonists of novels like Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Zia Rahman’s In Light of What We Know, is a South Asian Muslim, and a key moment for his (and their) life course is the relationship with a white female of status and means, as it was in Jessie Brown. How central must white female sexuality’s power be in determining the range of Muslim characters and narratives in the theatre of today?

Finally, what is the role of South Asia within the conceptualization of a recognizable character as Muslim? In Disgraced, the protagonist is defined by his South Asian placement in the world; this is what allows him to transform himself from Abdullah to Amir, yet the South Asian part of him is understated. There is an interesting relationship and imbalance between the empty South Asianness and the powerful Muslimness that appears in characters such as Abe and Amir, like the narrator of Sakina’s Restaurant and like Bashir in The Invisible Hand (here a British Asian Muslim). Does this imbalance play upon our imaginations? Are there ways to imagine South Asian Muslims without confirming assimilation, security complexes, white female sexuality, and to be blunt, recognition by those in power?

Is there, though, another way to approach our moment in this history, outside of recognition, through a critical genealogy of the present? To do that, we must seriously engage with the topoi of thinkers like Mohandas Gandhi, CLR James, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Ngugi Wa’Thiongo, Albert Memmi, Ali Shariati, David Scott, and all others committed to radical postcolonial critique. Are theatre workers able to break out into the “zone of occult instability” (Fanon) to create a space anew in which the imagination can break free of the framework established for it by a colonial power, or in this case, metropolitan theatre producing power?

The broader historical significance of Disgraced relates to the implications of writing and enacting cultural difference. Approximately thirty years ago when practitioners and critics hotly debated issues like Peter Brook’s staging of the Mahabharata, the baggage of metropolitan theatre practitioners like Brook or Richard Schechner and their alleged or real Orientalism was at stake, whereas now, South Asian and Middle Eastern practitioners, playwrights, actors, producers, critics and scholars in diasporic spaces are active participants, thus reshaping the conversation for the twenty-first century. The broader question for the contemporary world is whether another global crisis – like 1857-58 or 9/11 – will continue to shape our understandings of Islam and our aesthetic horizons related to Islam and Muslims. If not, how do we as Muslims and non-Muslims alike imagine a different future, or will theatre continue to solidify what we already know?

 

[1] Peter Thomson (ed.), Plays by Dion Boucicault (Cambridge University Press, 1984), 122.

[2] Ibid., 103. Boucicault’s character also reflects elements of an anti-colonial critique.

[3] Ayad Akhtar, Disgraced (New York: Back Bay Books, 2013), 75.

[4] Ibid., 87.

[5] Ibid., 92.