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On the Way to the Pig Festival

(Encounter, August 1978)

The dramatic metaphor

Jaques deserves a good kick in the pantaloons for that trope about universal theatre. Not all the world’s a stage, nor all the men and women merely players, and while it might have been all right to declaim this sort of thing in an age when figurative speech was taken figuratively, times have changed.

Harmless whimsy in yesterday’s Forest of Arden looks altogether more menacing in today’s Groves of Academe, where irony is seldom recognised, where scores of earnest men and women are always traipsing about looking for things called “paradigms” to hang their thoughts on, and where, over the years, a surprising number of them—though whether as a result of reading As You Like It is hard to tell—seem to have found the notion of “Life as Theatre” a persuasive metaphor.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Kenneth Burke invented the idiosyncratic scheme of socio-literary enquiry he called “dramatism.” In 1959 Erving Goffman announced that what we had been pleased to regard as the “self” was really just a kaleidoscope of roles. In the 1960s the philosophically inclined sociologist Peter Berger exploited the dramatic metaphor in a wide-ranging intellectual effort devoted, among other things, to divinity. Each of these men has written many books, and after such a variety of material from the fields of literature, social psychology, and sociology, it was only to be expected that some political applications would come along.

In 1972 Ferdinand Mount gave us The Theatre of Politics; and now Richard Sennett, in The Fall of Public Man, argues that theatricality is the essence of a “strong public life” and that one of the major problems of the modem politician is “how to arouse belief in one’s appearance.” It is a naive error, as Sennett appears to see it, to regard the credibility gap as a hiatus between public statements and public realities. The truth of the matter is that it occurs as a result of some failing in theatrical management. When that happens, public men fall.1

What does all this mean? Of course it would be false to suggest that such disparate authors all talk about Life as Theatre in essentially similar ways. They do not. Whereas both Kenneth Burke and Erving Goffman are happy enough simply to regard the dramatic metaphor as a useful way of describing the way things are, more boldly speculative men like Richard Sennett use it to prescribe how things ought to be. Nor are they all equally ambitious: whereas for Goffman the theatrical frame merely throws light on the ways of men, for Berger it illuminates the ways of God.

But despite the very considerable ingenuity most of this work displays, enough of it has a sufficiently strained and academic flavour to warrant treating it with some reserve. After all, ordinary experience recommends a clear distinction between “acting” and “action”, and the man in the street who wilfully ignores this demarcation does so at some personal risk. Vernacular images of the theatre are usually derisive. Is it merely naivety which leads the average citizen to dismiss some politicians as “mere actors” and the more histrionic of parliamentary proceedings as “mere charades”? If these popular intuitions are to be set aside, plain men may fairly ask why.

The move toward ritual

This question soon leads beyond merely academic fashions and usages. Down at the theatre there have been plenty of changes too. The elderly among us have lived to see “drama critics” (who wrote about drama with a good deal of astringency) evolving steadily backwards into “theatre critics” (who write about whatever happens in theatres); and lately there have been signs that the theatre critics’ time has also come.

Manifestations of assorted ethnographic bizarrerie2 suggest that the next generation of reviewers will need to be men of anthropological rather than literary tastes, able and willing to write about performances of “rituals” and “ceremonies” (and whose criticism, presumably, will attend to such matters as ritual exactitude and degrees of ceremonial splendour). And the interesting thing about this linear regression back down the path from drama to ritual, and about the theatrical troupes now dancing down that path, is that they too are inspired by a vision of Society as “Theatre”, by a desire to obliterate the boundary between art and life.

If the yearning for ritual involved only a taste for wordless mummery then perhaps it could be regarded as just another symptom of Steiner’s Silence. But the silence embraced is cerebral, not verbal; the atavism more sinister. Drama, after all, is the art form of an articulate open society par excellence. It flourishes where even the deepest and most painful issues are open to enquiry, argument, debate. In ritualised society such enquiry is foreclosed, such argument forbidden, such debate impossible. And while the anthropological spectrum of ritual is broad and varied enough to include a good deal of emotionality and conflict, this is allowed public expression only on condition that the deepest and most sensitive social assumptions remain untouched.

The current enthusiasm for ritual has been both alarming and mystifying. While there is little in what he says which might reduce our alarm, we are all indebted to the writings of Richard Schechner for ominously clarifying much that once seemed strange. A Professor of Drama at New York University’s School of the Arts, a well-known director, and a veteran pioneer of trends, Schechner has spent a good deal of his time searching for elixirs to revitalise the exhausted theatre of the West. He was an early enthusiast for “The Living Theatre” and has written widely about Happenings, Environments, and so on.

Then in 1972 he undertook a journey to the Kurumugl, high in the mountains of New Guinea; and it was in this rarefied atmosphere that he had a vision of what drama ideally might be—a complex of rituals integrating social life. He came to understand and to share the love of the Kurumugl for their pigs. He even witnessed a pig festival and saw whole herds of desperate swine massacred and devoured.

Anyone who has seen this sort of thing will tell you that it leaves a powerful impression; and there seems little doubt that Professor Schechner was powerfully impressed. Writing about it afterwards (and rather breathlessly using the present tense, perhaps for dramatic effect), he tells us that “the sight and smell of so much meat and blood excites the people, including me”, goes on excitedly to foresee the coming of what he calls “automation age tribalism”, and confidently advises us to prepare for that long-awaited instauration, “the advent of holism in contemporary society.”3

Now there is plainly a large difference between the delicious spectacle of our New York professor revelling in the theatre of communitarian gore, and the ironic detachment of Jacques in the Forest of Arden. For Jacques the World as Drama represented fate: for Schechner a world of ritualised social activity represents a wholly desirable state.

And turning to the presentation of The Theatre of Politics one might reasonably expect an even greater contrast between the Dionysian ecstasies of Schechner and the more Apollonian views of Ferdinand Mount. As one picks up the book one wonders what the Encounter author of “The Recovery of Civility”4 would have had to say about that shambles on the far-off mountain top, confident that a man with an elective affinity for Edmund Burke would be unlikely to derive much political inspiration from the event.

Theatre as communal experience

But how wrong can one be? For all I know he might easily have enjoyed the pig festival, since the account he gives of communitarian goings-on in Paris in 1971, although somewhat intellectualised and distant, is never less than appreciative. After quoting a report of a production of Ariane Mnouchkine’s 1789, The French Revolution, Year One, in which “When they reached the episode of the Bastille, they stopped the performance and the evening became one huge bal musette, the multifarious crowd singing and dancing through the night … “, he offers the following political interpretation:

“The theatre is transformed into the political convention hall. The immersion of the audience in the dramatic process may not be complete; the actors are still distinguished by their costumes and their speaking of lines. Yet it is the degree to which the audience feels immersed which is the production’s avowed criterion of success. In so far as the audience retains its detachment and its freedom to criticise either the technique of the production or the ideas propounded in it, the production has failed.”5

There is very little evidence that Mount wants to see “audience immersion” replace the existing procedures at Westminster, and even less that he would like to convert parliament into some sort of “holistic” festival, swinish or other. Quite the contrary. But this only makes the inevitable questions all the more exigent. Why does he feel this particular illustration helps his argument? Has there been a misunderstanding? Is it a case of misapplied topicality? Or does this curious example simply demonstrate the fatal tendency of the dramatic metaphor to lead even the most judicious authors somewhat astray?

For all its discursiveness, the main argument of The Theatre of Politics is simple enough. Successful politics requires talk, above all the sort of talk between citizens and their representatives which each party clearly understands. But in the unsuccessful political talk so prevalent today this sort of thing is lacking. Speeches do not connect; the hungry flock looks up and is not fed. Therefore—and who could disagree?—the standard of political conversation needs to be improved.

If this sounds familiar, it is. Page after page of The Theatre of Politics, for all its engaging vigour and attractive erudition, irresistibly reminds one of the journalistic agonising over the “problems” of Johnsonian politics in the 1960s—problems of communication and credibility which, it was dimly hoped, could be solved by something called “meaningful dialogue.”

Meaningful dialogue is in fact what The Theatre of Politics is all about. And “dialogue” itself is a word which crops up everywhere. Indeed, wherever the most natural and obvious word would be talk, or speech, or address, or exhortation, or argument—what we find instead is “dialogue.” A somewhat bizarre example occurs in the course of an extended discussion of Harold Macmillan’s career which describes his apparent failure to communicate with the public. Mount comments:

“Gielgud could make the gallery hear every syllable of Principia Mathematica, but he could not make them understand, let alone applaud it. Yet a successful political dialogue must do both. For political dialogue is persuasion.”

Perhaps it is. What is rather less clear is why the author considers “dialogue” the right word to use. Supposing that the gallery were filled with mathematicians and philosophers then Gielgud would have at least a fighting chance of making his audience understand, whether or not they could be induced to applaud. But how would this fact transform an eloquent expository discourse into a dialogue? If dialogue seems the appropriate term to Mount, one is forced to conclude that this must be because, like others who have adopted the dramatic metaphor, he finds himself committed to an extended vocabulary radiating out from the notion of “Life as Theatre”—act, actor, stage, dialogue, etc.—and because he is unwilling to acknowledge the fact that some of these terms are decidedly less helpful than others.

Dialogue or public address?

The notion of stage dialogue is not helpful. Nor is it apt. In ordinary parlance the sort of talk which takes place on a stage contains dialogues in which actors speak to actors, and it is for this reason the antithesis of that articulate sharing of views between representatives and audiences which Mount evidently wishes to promote. Of course you can say if you like that the playwright “addresses” his audience; or that the play “speaks” to our condition; or that the public knows very well what both playwright and players are “saying.” But if you want to use the term “dialogue” then the inconvenient fact must be faced that it has little to do with the relation of actors and audiences.

Indeed it is one of the more endearing features of dialogues upon the stage that they possess the hermetic exclusiveness of symbols, their threats and promises being forever sealed off behind the footlights and the proscenium arch. This shouldn’t make us sad: it is as it should be. The proscenium arch marks a division of discourse which corresponds to the division of our institutional life. It is the unambiguous clarity of this division which protects the privacy of playgoers, which mercifully guarantees the drama as a civilised form of persuasion rather than yet another exercise in public coercion, and which ensures that even when a playwright includes all the most threatening and painful and offensive material he can lay his hands on, his play will still find an audience.

If this account of drama as demarcated and separate is correct, then the dramatic metaphor is quite unsuited to Mount’s purposes—and on page 56 he admits as much. Whereas healthy political characters talk with their electoral audiences, the characters in stage dramas are incurably aloof. They

“do not converse with us directly and intimately. They are sealed off in the world that the author has created for them. They are distanced from us.”

They are indeed: and since the abridgment of political distance is Mount’s chief aim, the figurative portrayal of politics as drama can only be preserved by elastically enlarging the metaphor to include virtually anything that happens under a theatre roof, and in the course of this operation we find that it is to this loosely inclusive theatrical domain that “our subject, the political drama” belongs.

Rousseauistic manifestations

The appreciative reference to Rousseauistic manifestations in The Theatre of Politics shows that the inherent irrationalism of the dramatic metaphor, politically applied, pulls in two opposite directions. Whereas radical irrationalism celebrates the excitement of collectivities raising their consciousness on their own pétards, conservative irrationalism characteristically celebrates an unquestioning acquiescence in forms and rituals. Occasionally—and one feels that something like this is going on in both Richard Sennett and Peter Berger—the two appear to be ingeniously mixed for tactical purposes. But in Sennett’s case it would seem to be the irrationalism of forms and rites which is most deeply and most sincerely admired.

“It would seem” is about as much as one can safely say about The Fall of Public Man since a good deal of the book is obscure. But despite his muddled ideas, Sennett does seem to have a clearer understanding than Mount of the fact that the dramatic metaphor more naturally lends itself to exclusiveness, separation, and distance. A defence of spectacle in these terms was provided by Bagehot in his discussion of the aristocracy:

“The English people [Bagehot wrote] defer to what we may call the theatrical ,show of society. A certain state passes before them; a certain pomp of great men; a certain spectacle of beautiful women; a wonderful scene of wealth and enjoyment is displayed, and they are coerced by it. Their imagination is bowed down; they feel they are not equal to the life which is revealed to them…. Courtiers can do what others cannot. A common man may as well try to rival the actors on the stage in their acting, as the aristocracy in their acting. The higher world, as it looks from without, is a stage on which the actors walk their parts much better than the spectators can.”6

This passage is not used by Sennett, and Bagehot’s name does not even appear in the index—which in any case treats only the second part of the book. But I believe that it expresses some of Sennett’s ideas more clearly than the author does himself. To be sure, a number of very different references catch the eye, tantalising allusions to Karl Marx, Capitalism, and Commodity Fetishism, which convey the impression that the author would like The Fall of Public Man to be received politely in progressive circles. But this seems a very unlikely prospect. The whole tenor of his argument works against it. Discussing what he calls “public relations” (in contrast to private relations) which appear to be essentially political relations, he writes:

“Playacting in the form of manners, conventions, and ritual gestures is the very stuff out of which public relations are formed and from which public relations derive their emotional meaning.”

And when he goes on to define the specific problem of contemporary politics as the theatrical one of audience—”specifically, how to arouse belief in one’s appearance”—then the relevant authority for such mystification would certainly seem to be Bagehot rather than Marx.

Ferdinand Mount and Richard Sennett

In a curious way The Theatre of Politics and The Fall of Public Man complement each other—at least in the light they throw on the problems of the dramatic metaphor. Mount has a good deal of trouble making it fit his material. But at least his motives are honourable. He believes in the substance of political discourse, in actors who really mean what they say. On the other hand, Sennett has no trouble at all with the metaphor; and the reason seems to be that he is only interested in the forms of political discourse, in actors who are really at play.7 The contrast is striking, and one begins to suspect that such very different readings from a common figurative source derive from the ineradicable ambiguities of the words “act” and “actor”, a suspicion which Kenneth Burke’s statement on this matter appears to confirm.

Kenneth Burke’s thought may be approached either through the ten or more volumes of his collected works or through the six brief pages he wrote for a recent entry in the International Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. The first is mandatory for literary scholars. The second is more useful here.8 “The dramatistic approach is implicit in the key term ‘act'”, he writes (only seven lines into his encyclopaedia entry and with an emphasis that is not to be mistaken).” ‘Act’ is thus a terministic center from which many related considerations can be shown to ‘radiate’, as though it were a ‘god-term’ from which a whole universe of terms is derived.” A little later he points out that other people too have found the word “act” a useful starting point. Talcott Parsons “has analytically unfolded, for sociological purposes, much the same set of terministic functions that is here being called dramatistic (owing to their nature as implied in the idea of an ‘act’).”

But what does he mean by “the idea of an ‘act'”? And why should we believe that there is only one such idea? Surely the word “act” is located in two “terministic centers”, two separate semantic foci radiating two separate universes of terms. One of them leads in through the stage door and up into the world of theatrical business and “acting.” The other leads out into the world of workaday business and “action.” And it makes quite a lot of difference which of these starting points you choose—as Talcott Parsons knew very well when he called his book The Structure of Social Action. The difference between these universes lies in the directness, power, and immediacy of the consequences they trail.

When “acting” has any consequences at all these are indirect and lie in the exclusive realm of symbolic communication. The contrasting consequences of “action” lie in the inclusive world of our institutional life, a world underwritten by law.

Law and consequences

Of course it is laughably solecistic even to pronounce the word “law” in the context of a theatrical/phenomenological account of how society works. It is virtually a prerequisite in discussions of Life as Theatre that law be treated as if it didn’t even exist. This is consistent with an emphasis on the ephemeral and inconsequential in social relations. It might be said that law ensures the consequentiality of action in exactly the same way that the proscenium arch guarantees the inconsequentiality of acting.

Action and the consequences it trails always point towards the continuity of institutional forms, pressures, and constraints. Whereas acting—the arm of the ambiguity which appeals so strongly to those who select the dramatic metaphor—usually consists of the evasive negation of institutions and a denial of the continuities they represent.

No-one has documented the histrionic twists and turns of evasive negation more thoroughly than Erving Goffman, and such nice discriminations are found in his recent book, Frame Analysis9 such a remarkable sensitivity to the meanings of onstage and offstage, and of actors, audiences, and interactions, that one has forcefully to remind oneself that when he first proposed a theatrical analysis of daily life it was in a disarmingly off-hand way. “The claim that all the world’s a stage”, he wrote in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life,

“is sufficiently commonplace for readers to be familiar with its limitations and tolerant of its presentation, knowing that at any time they will easily be able to demonstrate to themselves that it is not to be taken too seriously.”

How could one object to that? Our erudition is flattered, our tolerance and sense of humour appealed to. It seems only sensible to acquiesce as the author tells us that “the self, then, as a performed character, is not an organic thing that has a specific location, whose fundamental fate is to be born, to mature, and to die; it is a dramatic effect…”

Goffman himself was careful to speak of the self “as” a performed character and at least to leave open the possibility of another self which was not. His more enthusiastic disciples have been less scrupulous. One of them tells us that “a person’s individuality is not something that is brought” to social situations, and goes on categorically to assert that “people do not have selves that are activated or reflected” by society.

According to another writer, the true nature of “the self is basically a system of language and ideas that is in a constant state of modification as a person interacts with others…. Manipulation is the key to individuality”, and the essential nature of individuality is something instrumental, kaleidoscopic, and brief.10

The implications of the self “as a system of language” everlastingly modified by “interaction” are intriguing. Can such a self truly be said to exist in a linguistic universe of one speaker? And how would we know? At all events, these revelations plainly spell doom for the resistant self, the obdurate self, the “own self” discussed by Lionel Trilling,11 and the Solzhenitsyns of the world should be promptly advised. More seriously, it appears that the result of applying the dramatic metaphor to social psychology is a doctrinaire ephemeralization of the self. Personal identity is equated with role-playing; and in a world made entirely of roles there can be no selves.

Goffman’s world

As Jacques would have been the first to admit, it is hard to think or talk about men in this way without adopting, sometimes unconsciously, an ironic tone. And one of the more piquant features of Goffman’s Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1956) is its irony and humour. We read of London’s chimney sweeps and the white lab coats they affect, an affectation designed (so Goffman tells us) to provide their clients “with an understanding that the delicate tasks performed by these persons will be performed in … a clinical, confidential manner.” And we smile with the author as he tells us about role-players who suddenly get carried away by their own performance: “This intricate manoeuvre of self-delusion constantly occurs; psychoanalysts have provided us with beautiful field data of this kind, under the headings of repression and dissociation …”

But “beautiful data on dissociation” was not the sort of phrase or attitude the 1960s took kindly to. Madness was to be no laughing matter; and in some quarters delusion and dissociation were soon to be transformed from aberrations into signs of quasi-divinity. Anticipating this trend, Goffman’s 1961 book Asylums shows a marked shift in both the dramaturgical account of the self and in the author’s moral viewpoint. Whereas his attitude toward the little dramas of civil life was amused and ironic, the same sort of thing in a “total institution” finds him stony-faced, and his language is downright indignant. Loss of face is no longer a joke; it’s a defacement. We are told that a person’s clothes are an “identity kit” and that these have a “special relation to self.” Indeed, it could be argued that whereas Goffman’s first book was about the self and its presentation, his subsequent Asylums is about the preservation of self.

All of which contradicts his earlier view. In his first book he had gone out of his way to stress that the self is “not an organic thing”, that it was only a dramatic effect, that persons provide bodies “on which something of collaborative manufacture will be hung for a time.” Now all is changed. “Total institutions” deface and mortify the self. In such places a person’s body, thoughts, and even some possessions are “territories of the self” which are “violated … invaded … profaned.” This is a far cry from the self as merely a suit of clothes hanging on a peg. After all, you can’t mortify a rain-coat or humiliate a shoe.

Goffman ignores the implications of this change in attitude. In a meditative aside on the question of head-shaving and similar “mor­tifications” he remarks:

“… according to the general expressive idiom of our society, having one’s head shaved is easily perceived as a curtailment of the self, but while this mortification may enrage a mental patient, it may please a monk.”

Translated, I suppose what he’s saying here is that one man’s face is another man’s person. But if true, this relativistic axiom takes the debate right out of the realm in which the moral language of violation, invasion and profanation makes any sense. If one man’s violation is another’s ecstasy —why get worked up about it? All that’s appropriate is a relativistic shoulder-shrug and an anthropological smile.

Dramatism and relativism

The relativistic potential of the dramatic metaphor is, to some thinkers, its most appealing attribute. One play is as good as another—Pig Festivals or The Marriage of Figaro, who cares?—and though performances may vary it is pointless to compare scenarios. The scenarios are essentially meaningless, and only a dull fellow would try to compare and to evaluate meaningless things. The blithely unphilosophic nature of most anthropologists has generally protected them from considering such matters, but sociologists of European background see more clearly what’s at stake. Few have gone further than Peter L. Berger in exploiting the relativistic possibilities of theatrum mundi.

He prefers Erasmus instead of Shakespeare for his text.

“What else [asked the author of The Praise of Folly is the whole life of mortals but a sort of comedy, in which the various actors, disguised by various costumes and masks, walk on and play each one his part… ?”

Taken as a programme for research, “the whole of life” encourages a challengingly ambitious approach; and it is a challenge which Berger clearly welcomes. What has to be done, he declares, is to push the dramatic vision well beyond the provincial academic limits of “role theory” and its psychological minutiae. First it must be made to embrace the Sociology of Knowledge; then, more curiously, what might be called the theology of knowledge as well.

The Sociology of Knowledge and the Dramatic Metaphor were made for one another. Both celebrate a holistic consensus. According to the Sociology of Knowledge the force of social expectations determines what is true; according to the dramatic metaphor the force of these same expectations determines what we do. Ergo, knowledge and truth are always pragmatically determined by social needs. For anyone slow to draw the inevitable conclusions, Berger provides an account of the fate of American prisoners of war in Chinese Communist hands (the book in question appeared in 1961). Readers of Bao Ruo-Wang’s report of his years in Mao’s prisons are bound to find it instructive:

“It has been for quite some time a common­place of social psychology that not only behaviour and emotions but cognitive processes as well are subject to group influence….It is presumably a root fact of social existence that most men tend to think as their fellows do. This tendency acts as a powerful psychological instrument of social control, bringing back into line the individual whose thinking deviates from the norms set by the group. How far this tendency can go has been shown by the evidence concerning Communist ‘brain-washing’ techniques in recent years…

“Thus, for example, in the case of American prisoners of war brain-washed by the Chinese Communists, it now becomes possible not only to analyse the psychological processes inducing some remarkable conversions to the captor’s points of view, but to show how these processes relate the individuals in question to specific social worlds. In this particular example the sociology of knowledge implications are particularly obvious, since the conversion now involves a total different perspective on the political scene.”

That’s all there is: a different perspective. And from each perspective the world is contemplated with a blank amoral stare. One gets the distinct impression that perspectivitis is to the moral viewpoint what conjunctivitis is to the eye itself— gravely disabling. But to Berger it is somehow enriching.

“Our consideration of sociology of knowledge … has added another dimension. We now see our actors once more upon the stage, playing their various roles. But now we see a Weltanschauung dangling from the end of each role.”12

Yet it is the Weltanschauung dangling from Peter Berger’s exposition which is perhaps more revealing. In a fashion which has become more and more familiar in the decade-and-a-half since he wrote this book, science is assimilated to ideology, and philosophy to congenial fiction. Each are merely perspectives offering equally “valid” views of equally artificial stages and sets and decor.

And when this theatrical “perspective” is used to provide the justification for a modern theology, the author’s relativistic sociology really comes into its own. The gist of it is that man must somehow protect himself from terror—the terror of realising that beneath the firm reality of the everyday world there is only the darkness of ontological chaos, the black pit of meaningless-ness. The fire of human thought does not illuminate this darkness. It only provides a comforting sensation of warmth. Science does not explain the nature of the pit. It only provides a reassuring “plausibility structure.” There are many such plausibility structures (science is only one); and which you actually choose hardly matters.

Relativizing the relativizers

The theological gloss on the Sociology of Knowledge in Berger’s A Rumour of Angels (1970) is all the glossier for its apparent unawareness of the whole Karl Popper debate, for suggesting that no critique worth the name has ever been made of the Sociology of Knowledge, and for implying that the comparative testability of propositions is an illusion. In the chapter “Relativizing the Relativizers” we are confidently informed that

“when everything has been subsumed under the relativizing categories in question (those of history, of the sociology of knowledge, or what-have-you), the question of truth reasserts itself in almost pristine simplicity.”13

On the contrary, the question does not reassert itself. It cannot even sensibly be asked, since from the premises of his argument it follows that all questions about truth or falsehood are meaningless.

The more one reads of this book the more the suspicion grows upon one that what is being enacted is a scene from the Philosophy of the Absurd. On page 64 Hegel and Marx enter (from right and left stage respectively), bow, and applaud each other. It seems that they have no important differences. And even when Marx stands on his head and walks around on his hands their mutual congratulations continue. Metaphysically speaking, it doesn’t matter which way up anybody is.

“It is logically possible [writes Berger] that both [the Hegelian and Marxian] perspectives may coexist, each within its particular frame of reference… The logic of the first perspective does not preclude the possibility of the latter.”

Perhaps, though I’m not sure that logic has much to do with it. Anyway, why stop with Hegel and Marx? Why not enlarge one’s cast of characters to include Mother Goose, Old Uncle Tom Cobbleigh, the festive Weltanschauung of the Kurumugl, et al.? Certainly there is nothing in the free-wheeling “logic of perspectives” to forbid it. And under the theatrical aspect of Life as Play, where anything goes, surely we are entitled to expect a modicum of philosophical entertainment in exchange for surrendering everything else?

At the pig festival

From the cloudy heights of central New Guinea one can see two climbers toiling up the slopes below. One of them, rather garishly dressed, appears to be a theatrical personality from New York. He is weary of what the West calls drama. It is so divisive, so alienating, so intolerably exclusive! It does almost nothing to foster that warm sense of unanimity which distinguishes the communitarian enterprise. In contrast, tribal rituals heal, seal, and unify.

And it doesn’t really matter what the ritual consists of, or what it celebrates, or what its participants believe. Almost any old belief will do. The important thing is participation. When you take part you always feel so much better.

The other climber agrees. It is all very well, he says, for sociologists and others to comprehend the cosmos as a kind of vast, meaningless drama. But for most men the drama of life is much too dramatic, too full of frightening surprises. In order to provide a surprise-free world they must be protected by “plausibility structures” of irrational belief.

And it doesn’t much matter what kind of plausibility you choose. Almost anything at all will do. As for ritual, says the philosopher—raising his voice a little so that he can be heard above the squealing of pigs being roped and tied for slaughter—surely rituals are perfectly sensible ways of providing reassurance in a world in which “all human societies and their institutions are, at their root, a barrier against terror…”

But there is no reply. The man of the theatre, with feathers in his hair, has already joined the tribal dance.

Posted in Civilization, Arts and Letters, Tribalism, Theatre.

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