Tuesday, January 21, 2014

This is Sparta

Orwell remarked in a review of a hard-boiled 1930s crime novel that the book in question was "a daydream appropriate to a totalitarian age."  What he meant was that its characters were all equally debased and the moral distinctions between them as nominal and meaningless as those between Stalin and Hitler.  The novel was a fantasy version of the world around it-- one composed entirely of gangsters.  It was this reality that fed it with imagery and with fodder for self-projection.

If the historian of the future wonders what "daydream" was appropriate to the War on Terror, she could do worse than rewatch the 2007 blockbuster 300.  Far more than Zero Dark Thirty or Jarhead, that film will be recalled as the definitive product of its political environment.  Like Miss Blandish, Orwell's subject above, the film as a cultural artifact "has not the smallest connexion with politics in any direct sense"-- but it is a fantasy that could only have been dreamt in an era of "extraordinary rendition" and perpetual warfare.  In short, everything ludicrous and faintly goose-stepping about the last fifteen years of American life made it onto the screen.  The film breathes the same mix of archaic brutality and sterile techno-savvy one could see in the way terrorism suspects were waterboarded or stuffed into coffins while modern doctors stood on hand to make sure no "damage" was done.

It is a bad thing in general when a society worships violence.  It is a still more ominous signal when it holds up ancient Sparta as a cultural ideal, especially when it is a society that is otherwise becoming so Athenian-- i.e. cosmopolitan, urban, and atomized.  If you hear the words "violence" and "Sparta" in an Athenian society, two other words should immediately come to mind: the first is "boredom" and the second is "fascism."


It has been remarked before (I think by Bertrand Russell) that a good deal of Western history can be explained as a conflict between Athens and Sparta, or at least, the cultural myths that these two ancient cities represent.  I say "cultural myths" because most of what we know about Sparta in fact comes from an Athenian, Xenophon, who wrote about his exotic adversary the way wide-eyed fellow-travelers in the '30s wrote about the Soviet Union.  But his account is also useful in much the same way as theirs: it says something about the nature of a cultural aspiration.  Our daydreams are facts too, after all.  What they reveal in this prototypical case is something that has since become a recurring trope in the West-- the more Athenian a society becomes, the more it longs to be Spartan.  In other words, it is precisely when a society achieves wealth, stability, and economic hegemony that cultural rigor mortis sets in-- usually in the form of boredom, which is the great leaven of fascism (or vice versa?)

A movie like 300 was entirely the product of an Athenian society which, at the peak of its power and influence after the Cold War, dreamed of going Spartan.  The unnerving overtones of this dream did not go unremarked at the time the film was released.  At the Berlin debut, it was rumored at the time, movie-goers actually booed the film and its director.  Apparently, something about the film's ideology struck the German audience as all too familiar.  

Much was made at the time of the suspect racial and sexual politics of the film, though I imagine this was a bit of a red herring.  Yes, there was the fact that the evil Persians seemed to include all non-white races, and that their statuesque leader managed to be both an ethnically ambiguous catch-all of Caucasian paranoia and a camp nightmare.  I'm not disputing that that there was a fair deal of racism and homophobia at play in this.  The screenwriters even gave King Leonidas some sneering remark, as I recall, about those "philosophers and boy-lovers" over in Athens.  (Translated into 2007 terms, this means "America-hating academics" and "the gays"-- plural, but with a definite article.  The humor inherent in using the Spartan army, of all things, as a vehicle for Bush-era heterosexual supremacism was lost on the filmmakers.)  

It is also clear, however, that the specific identity of the foes of the Spartans in the movie is incidental.  Gay or straight, black or white, what is really important is that someone be there to meet the sharp end of a Spartan lance in escalating degrees of bloodiness.  The evident lack of ideology here might suggest to some that the movie is not fascist, just dim-witted, but this would miss the point of fascism.  Fascism makes use of whatever ideology is handy-- what matters is not its intellectual content, but the degree of excitement it can generate.  Fascism at its most basic level is a refusal to be bored.

Hence the complete lack of coherent "ideas" in Zack Snyder's movie.  True, "democracy" is thrown around by the Spartans on screen, invoked against the specter of internal enemies of Leonidas (liberals?) and external foes.  Mrs. Leonidas even gives us some bumper-sticker wisdom at one point, if I remember correctly: "Freedom isn't free" or something like that.  This idea that the Spartans were great defenders of liberty and representative government is silly for all the reasons you have just supposed.  Its inherent implausibility suggests these power-words are shibboleths and could have easily been replaced by their opposites, without any loss of content.  The violence in the film is not really inflicted to achieve anything or in the name of anything -- it is a spectacle intended to alleviate boredom, like boys pulling the wings off insects.

When Athens is bored enough that it could succeed in its attempt, it should indicate trouble.  It means Athens has started to look to Sparta as a model.


I might seem to have written myself into a Catch-22.  Athens leads to Sparta, I have implied.  But I assume Sparta also leads to Sparta-- or if it leads to Athens, it does so by a route too bloody and ignominious to regard as a tragic historical necessity.  

But we can think our way out of the trap if we acknowledge that the problem does not lie in our forgivable, even admirable desire not to be bored.  Boredom is simply our body telling us that our will has nowhere to direct itself, either because it is being thwarted or because it doesn't know what to do with itself.  Yet human life consists precisely in willing, as Nietzsche knew, and denying the will expression either destroys life or misdirects its energies toward cruelty-- or fantasies of cruelty.  Says Gore Vidal in a reminiscence of Edgar Rice Burrough's pulp classic Tarzan: "Since the individual's desire to dominate his environment is not a desirable trait in a society that every day grows more and more confining, the average man must take to daydreaming."

Vidal is warning us against the Athenian approach to life-- the gradual extinction of suffering-- and the boredom it engenders.  We might be surprised at the warning, when the Spartan tendency to maximize suffering is so much more evidently perverse.  Yet the point is that it is not entirely clear that one can have the former without eventually getting the latter.  Human beings are not built to be sitters-- they are built to be valuers and willers.  And in order to value something, meaningfully, one must have a sense that it is somehow precious, fragile, and time-bound.  In order to will something, meaningfully, one has to feel that one has brought it about through one's own efforts.  This implies that one had to contend against something-- against whatever inertial force the current situation offered in resistance.  To will, therefore, implies struggle.  Had an action been truly effortless, you would not have willed it.  You don't will the Earthquake that destroys your home.  That is something that happens to you.  You will the new home you build in its place.  That is something you do.  

The Spartan tendency, represented in Western thought by Georges Sorel and Nietzsche and others, is therefore not wrong to insist that the human spirit has to keep on willing and struggling to survive.  Creativity, real joy, and love are often the products of hardship -- what Baudelaire called "the flowers of evil."  His image of the poet was as one who suffered on Earth as the price for his soaring imagination: "Exiled on earth, at bay amid the jeering crowd / He cannot walk for his unmanageable wings." (Dillon trans.) 

The trouble is that one of the few things we find meaning in willing is the elimination of suffering, for ourselves and others-- a goal which, should we achieve it entirely, would leave us with nothing left to will, and therefore with nothing but suffering.  This is the corner into which Athenianism invariably paints itself. 

The Spartan solution-- the 300 solution-- is to create conflict and pain artificially -- which leads to suffering, which creates value.  But this solution, in addition to everything more obviously wrong with it, is a pipe dream.  You can only value what you take to have meaning.  If you have confessed to yourself up front that your choice of enemy and combat venue was an arbitrary one, you have already acknowledged that your conflict with this foe in this place has no value.  Struggling for something which holds no meaning for you is not only ridiculous superficially, it is also-- unsurprisingly-- boring.  The will directed into cruelty is still ultimately thwarted, because it cannot find a reason for what it does.  Thus, there is no boredom deeper than that of the sated sadist-- the despot who has exhausted his full range of tortures.

But it is equally undesirable -- and probably impossible -- to reach a state of perfect equilibrium, in which there is nothing left to suffer or struggle for-- and therefore nothing left to will.  If we succeed in reaching this point, we will discover that we have eliminated ourselves in the process-- we will learn that our self is nothing other than our struggling, suffering will.  In Kenzaburo Oe's haunting novel, A Personal Matter, the protagonist Bird spends 150 pages trying to evade responsibility for the disabled child of whom is the father.  His rationale is that of self-preservation: he must protect himself from what he imagines will be an intolerable and lifelong burden.  But just at the moment that he thinks he has made a break with his son and achieved perfect freedom, the real suffering begins: "something stirred sluggishly inside him [...] What was he trying to protect from that monster of a baby that he must run so hard and so shamelessly?  What was it in himself he was so frantic to defend?  The answer was horrifying-- nothing! Zero!"  (John Nathan trans.)  Bird promptly reverses course.  He decides to seek out the difficulty he has been attempting to avoid.

The paradox of it is that Bird must still seek to conquer suffering-- his child's if not his own.  He cannot come to regard suffering as "good" or salutary-- to do so would leave him with nothing good, nothing valuable or meaningful, left to will-- since the willing of suffering is valueless.  Finding a way through this knot is one of the deeper mysteries of life: suffice it to say for now that what separates Bird from, say, Nietzsche, is not that the one has decided to "live dangerously" and the other has not.  What separates them is that the form of struggle Bird pursues is for something-- more specifically, it is for someone-- rather than being simply against something.  It has a meaning that perpetual war, prolonged simply for the fun of it, cannot possess.  It slays the beast of boredom with more finality than any degree of cruelty could achieve.


On a different note, we can apparently expect another chapter in the 300 saga this year.  What will have become of our Spartan heroes?  Perhaps their Empire had a financial crisis and now boredom no longer seems like its biggest problem.  Perhaps the man who has taken over old Leonidas' campaigns is suspected of being a crypto-Persian himself by the former king's supporters (where's Darius' birth certificate anyways?)  

Or maybe the war has gone on for so long (13 years long?)  that it too has become boring.

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