Saturday, March 26, 2005

Thersites in his Labyrinth of Fury

"What an edifying spectacle" said blogger RMJ regarding the demise of Terri Schiavo. He meant it to be ironic, and he said Thersites meant it that way too (though Fido is unsure of the attribution). The ironic attitude leaves much to be desired, but the ironic, critical response seems irrepressible, ineluctable, however that works. Perhaps it's a defense against actually becoming the inhuman one is compelled to imagine.

Still, there is something to be said for conviction. Joe Ford writes forcefully about Bigotry and the Murder of Terri Schiavo, and Who Crushes a Butterfly with a Hammer? asks Catez Stevens.

Leaning more towards the ironic, Bob Frodeman wonders whether Schiavo's demise represents a turning point in the confrontation between religious and technoscientific worldviews, while Carl at Fort Kant takes notice of a critique of humanism, and adopts an ambivalent stance towards what has been identified as the humanist stain.

Fido the Yak is at a loss. He turned to the pages of The Vital Illusion hoping to find some answers between "The Final Solution" and "The Murder of the Real." There were no real answers. Some nausea. A conviction that thanatos is, like the pursuit of happiness, for the living. And while Baudrillard draws some interesting distinctions between objective and critical irony, Fido fears that if he rejects the premise of inexorable reversability the whole exercize would be for naught. Baudrillard becomes useless to him.

Oh wouldn't it be fun to open up Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle or Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish? Not really. Anyway, Fido's library is a little thin. Perhaps some there are some notes in the back pages of The History of Sexuality that could be dragged into the fray. Yet the whole sordid business of throwing up marginalia in the face of human tragedy really does get on one's nerves.

So, upon reflection, it seems that RMJ may be on to something by pointing to Theristes. The figure of Theristes, as Joyce Carol Oates argued in The Tragedy of Existence: Shakespeare's "Troilus and Cressida," "is used by Shakespeare to break illusions, to break the spells cast by the eloquent and self-deceived rhetoricians of the early scenes." He presents us with

the most base, the most existential vision in the play, and if we hesitate to believe that it is also Shakespeare's vision, we must admit that he has spent a great deal of time establishing it. His function is to call everything down to earth and to trample it. In his discordant music he celebrates what Troilus and others have been experiencing, and it is certainly Shakespeare's belief, along with Thersites', that "all the argument is a cuckold and a whore."

No doubt many a blogger would cast themselves as Thersites. Fido demurs. To continue with Oates' reading:

The play, with its large number of characters, submits various interpretations of itself to the audience. The most strident of the points of view is Thersites, who maintains one note and emerges as a kind of choral instrument to insist upon the betrayal of the spirit by the body. The violent rhythms of the play—its jagged transitions and contrasts between sweetness and bawdiness, pomposity and blunt physical action—are most obviously represented by Thersites in his labyrinth of fury. If he reminds us of anyone else in Shakespeare, it is Iago, who cannot love and who must therefore drag everyone down to his bestial level. But Thersites is more mysterious a character than Iago because he figures not at all in the action—the play would be different without him, but not radically different. He comes onto the stage and mocks the rituals that have characterized the first part of the play; we feel, after Troilus' inflamed words and the Greeks' pompous speeches, that this is a man who speaks the truth, who sees at once through all masks. Because it is static, his nihilism soon becomes wearisome. But he is not intended to be an entertaining character; he is little more than a voice that has attached itself to this war simply in order to interpret it.


Thersites' rage, however, is impotent, a rage to which no one seems to listen. He calls down curses upon the heroes who surround him in an effort to deflate their fraudulent romanticism and to make them less than human. Man in Thersites' vision is a catalogue of parts; he is the maddened puritan who cannot endure the discrepancy between the ideals of man and the physical counterparts of these ideals, and who wants nothing so much as to rip to shreds the pretensions of the heroes and to substitute for their grandiose views of themselves a devastating image of man as a physical creature unable to transcend the meanness of his body.

Well, Oates goes on to offer many more insights into the play and the tragedy of human existence. It's truly an edifying critique, so Fido suggests that you please do read it.

posted by Fido the Yak at 8:51 PM.


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