Pan Drakopoulos: The Archaeology of European Identity (Part III)

by Pan Drakopoulos

off the beaten path10. The Madness of Power

THE CEILING of the stage was an implacable black void with a round celestial body suspended from its center; a sphere, a planet which symbolized the position of our world and its loneliness within the universal darkness, or it might have been the eye and sword of God, uncovering every action and intention, pondering everything carefully against the omnivorous evil, setting a limit to time beyond which all acts become imprisoned. The floor of the stage, sloping towards the audience, seemed like a huge book stand. Thus we could see exactly where the drama was taking place; a drama wherein the leading actor was the mechanism of history itself: a mechanism whose parts -kings, hangmen, princesses, innkeepers, noblemen, attendants, soldiers, the Great Fool himself, and above all, the insatiable will for power- were at the same time its creators. The whole stage was covered with a map of our world showing the frontiers between countries, towns, rivers, mountains and all the rest paraphernalia of space. Within that space, which pretends to be immobile, our pre-ordained world exists and all the actions of human beings are played out. This was the setting for a performance of King Lear at Stratford-upon-Avon, directed by Adrian Noble, with Robert Stephens in the title role, in January 1994: a lesson on how power composes its reasoning and how it decomposes it by following that very same reasoning to its extremes.

Lear: What’s that hath so much thy place mistook / To set thee here?”

What does he really tell us in a voice more furious than the storm? It is true that his words reveal some immutable truths. He is a king who has divested himself of kingship, believing that he has retained his authority, despite giving up its execution; a king who is homeless in every sense because he hasn’t realized that to have authority means to have institutions; a king who feels embittered at discovering that royal robes only fit the person who wears them; a king who has sensed, after having gone mad -only then- that you cannot have power if others are indifferent to it; that is, you have authority only as long as you exert it at all costs and until the end -until your end.

Here now, Lear, divested of all authority and homeless as a tramp, lies down to sleep on the heath; with him is the wise fool (32) (therefore a great fool) who is going to show him what indeed a king is, what a ruler is: he will tear at the map which is covering the stage, and squashing a piece of it, will turn it into a pillow and put it under Lear’s head, and he will draw the rest of the map over Lear and cover him with it, And let this be a hard lesson to any Lear: (33) Between a Lear who masters the world and a Lear who is mastered by it, intervenes the clothing of human nakedness in the garment of power, nothing but the substance of power itself.

But what is that “garment” of power that can be identified with its substance? A garment of power is the use of its language (34) -different use means a different regime or different functional conditions of the same regime. In any case, its language is necessarily institutional: the cowl does not make the monk, if the monk represents sanctity, but the cowl does make the monk if he represents the power of authority. The state and violence are always the representative forms of authority, as Aeschylus has taught us in his Prometheus, but this work does not always speak with harshness that Thucydides wants. Authority is exerted in the name of something transcendental (God, race, homeland, or a supreme moral principle embodied in class or justice), and by incorporating a series of symbols which will give its language an institutional character, something entirely different from the language of a powerful person -a ruler or even an embezzler of power. Even tyrants and dictators can be legalized in the perception of the public, provided that they use an institutional language; otherwise they are simply a group of interlopers, rebels or whatever people call the bearers of a non-institutional, and consequently, antisocial power. In plain speech, the difference between institutional and non-institutional language is just the difference between a policeman and a robber at the moment they are shooting each other.

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