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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

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Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

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Sunday, September 18, 2005

The Terrorist of Malta, Part III

Posted by Ray Davis on 09/18/05 at 01:17 PM

No government which executed so many citizens could be called "small," but Elizabethan England was certainly privatized: Constantinople's "British ambassadors" were directly employed by the Levant Company. Government's role was to coordinate espionage networks, corporal punishment, military action, proclamations of religious intent, spectacular patronage, and highly profitable monopolies by and for the benefit of the powerful few. Delivering arms to yesterday's or tomorrow's enemy helped finance the looting of today's. Power was centralized and capricious, the middle class kept in line by a mix of fear and feverish speculation. Life was spent in display and exited in debt. Expressions of charity, unlike professions of faith, were left strictly to the individual conscience; long-lived consciences learned to be flexible in their professions.

Marlowe's play fantastically alters a siege that took place the year after his birth. Obviously, some alterations were part of his job as a playwright with a scene-chewer to feed. Speculatively, some were due to religious-economic war with Catholic empires and Anglo-Turkish conspiracies against Malta.

Given these backgrounds, what strikes me about the play isn't its cynicism, or its plea for tolerance, delivered by neo-con Machiavelli himself:

I crave but this,— grace him as he deserves,
And let him not be entertain'd the worse
Because he favours me.

What strikes me is who's been added and who are missing.

The addition, of course, is Barabas.

In Marlowe's alternative history, Barabas gives the Maltese governor the trifecta of his dreams: Barabas provides an excuse for the governor to steal all his possessions, purportedly to pay off an urgent debt which is then reneged on; Barabas blocks an embarrassing interfaith marriage between the two families; Barabas delivers a valuable hostage into the governor's hands and is then neatly deposited down his own trapdoor.

In Marlowe's real history, there existed Jewish (or quasi-Jewish) agents who played all sides against each other. But it was a thoroughly British relative of Marlowe's own Lord Strange who engineered the time's most Barabas-worthy betrayal. And the English (like the Maltese) managed to eke out some profit through these wicked middlemen before discarding or slaughtering them.

Who're missing are the English.

Absent Protestant characters, the play's taken-for-granted pro-Christianity and its boisterous anti-Catholicism clash scene by scene. On the one hand, the Jew's daughter assuredly gains redemption by joining a convent and the Maltese victory is thanks "to Heaven"; on the other, the monks are money-grubbers and the nuns are whores. In Wilson's formula, Barabas somehow stands for the English point of view and yet the governor of Malta is clearly meant to be cheered by the English audience and yet the Catholic Maltese were (in Wilson's theory) Marlowe's patrons' chief targets.

Such awkwardness has its uses.

Since the Christian governor cheats Turk and Jew twice over, when Barabas advances arguments like:

Thus, loving neither, will I live with both,
Making a profit of my policy;
And he from whom my most advantage comes,
Shall be my friend.
This is the life we Jews are us'd to lead;
And reason too, for Christians do the like.


It's no sin to deceive a Christian;
For they themselves hold it a principle,
Faith is not to be held with heretics:
But all are heretics that are not Jews....

No one disputes his points. Instead, they bring up less ambiguous issues, such as his people having been cursed by God, or his having poisoned a nunnery. In doing so, they've been relieved of the responsibility of making his arguments themselves. They reap the benefits of tacit agreement while avoiding the danger of overt advocacy.

By having the Jewish villain espouse doing business with heretics, Marlowe avoids the propaganda problem that worried Edward Barton. By having the Jewish villain commit such horrendous crimes, Marlowe insinuates by contrast that doing business with heretics isn't so heinous.

These "love the sin but hate the sinner" narratives are familiar enough. We're titillated; we condemn; all's well.

Sometimes such narratives smuggle out otherwise uncommunicable signals. It's Snowflake's Choice: a narrative which dehumanizes or no narrative at all. The envelope cuts both the sender and the recipient; the envelope may even be poisoned; still, the urge to communicate finds outlet.

But Marlowe apologists should limit their liberatory claims. No gaybasher ever paused to say, "Wait a minute this guy reminds me of the insane killer in Laura!" And Marlowe's choice of a Jewish scapegoat for capitalist sins brings him closer to nineteenth and twentieth century anti-Semitism than to medieval or Counter-Reformation anti-Semitism.

Similarly, the play's Christian-and/or-Catholic awkwardness reminds me of the awkwardness a later generation of privatization profiteers faced in constructing a "Judeo-Christian" pseudo-identity which permitted relations with "good" (that is, profitable) non-Judeo-Christians, at least until such heretics could be cut out of the picture....

And the play's solution isn't far from theirs: Justify a war for profit as a war on terror.

* * *

We began in an approved literary relationship. Serial monogamy: individual reader and individual work, in bed alone with the covers drawn up. Maybe spiced a bit mendaciously by fantasies about the author. All very legitimate and, in this instance, very unsatisfying.

By opening our sheets to encompass the work's political and economic context, vague background texture snapped into vibrant focus. The relationship became intriguing.

And problematic.

Well, that's my problem, not Marlowe's. To deal with it, I had to broaden the scope again, to the reader's political and economic context.

In doing so, although I strayed from what might be called "appreciation", I don't think I dragged in arbitrary matter. The extent to which The Jew of Malta is depiction, indirection, prediction, or coincidence is unascertainable, but Marlowe himself opened this purse of worms. His play becomes more interesting when politically contextualized because his play was to some unknown degree a political act not only a depiction of Realpolitik but an example of it.

* * *

Here, I've essayed a response to CultRev's request some time ago for "brief statements about what we think the role of politics in the study of literature might be." Not so brief, I'm afraid. Particulars are my statement, and they take a while.

Thanks to some gruesome reaction of genetics and environment, I'm an unapologetic aesthete. (Well, I apologize sometimes, but it doesn't do much good.) Art is central to my metaphysics, ethics, and even (shamefully) my politics. It's the lightbulb the world revolves around.

I revolve with the world. To an absurd extent, my essay on Lubitsch's final movie and my edition of The Witlings were prompted by last autumn's American elections. If I'd wanted to write about shallow trash on purely aesthetic grounds, I would've chosen John Marston, the English Renaissance Trey Parker.

And the light's not confined to the bulb. "Politics" can clarify what would otherwise remain obscure, solve puzzles or remove the blinders of arrogance. If we ask readers to imaginatively ally themselves with those heroic canonical authors, why not promote imaginative alliances with their circumstances? If it's not cheating "literary value" when we explain The Jew of Malta's vocabulary or the conventions of blank verse, or when we treat a haphazardly published assortment of poems and commercial scripts as evidence from which to deduce a fascinatingly singular Marlovian mind, how could anyone protest when we explore the political and economic conflicts at the dirty heart and fingertips of the play? If students bitch about Jane Austen's lack of interest in colonial injustice, we might remind them of their baggy jeans' provenance. If they snub Thomas Jefferson, we might point out the profitability of their state's prison system.

There are other roles for "politics", I know maybe I've been displaying them myself; you tell me bulking up one's blinders, deploying righteousness as an ornamental shield for ignorance....

I just don't think they're as useful in the study of literature.


Ray, we agree yet again. It just keeps happening.

No one should have mistaken any of my previous claims as a call for soapbox preaching in the classroom. Not very effective.

Well, that’s my problem, not Marlowe’s. To deal with it, I had to broaden the scope again, to the reader’s political and economic context.

That’s just right. Even if it doesn’t explicitly make its way into yr text, I like to have a sense that you’re writing to tell me something. Something that might matter now.

Too often, that’s exactly what’s faded away in literary academia today. The questions and answers are prerigged. By “theory,” sometimes. More often by a mealymouthed and unproductive liberalism. Almost always by a tendancy to repeat what’s worked before, a fear of what might happen if you say something else. A fear that you won’t be understood.

In the Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin defines his mode of working as “the art of experiencing the present as waking world, a world to which that dream we name the past refers in truth.”

If students bitch about Jane Austen’s lack of interest in colonial injustice, we might remind them of their baggy jeans’ provenance. If they snub Thomas Jefferson, we might point out the profitability of their state’s prison system.

That’s right. If we’re going to talk about literature and politics, the first and last step - and every step in between - is to live up to the self-awareness, reflexivity, and dialogicity that are inherent in the forms we study. Literature, when worthy of the name, is the snare of dogma, the knot in the party line. 

I’m an unapologetic aesthete… Art is central to my metaphysics, ethics, and even (shamefully) my politics. It’s the lightbulb the world revolves around.

Mine as well, and also WB’s. Everything I know about politics, I learned first from Flaubert. And not Sentimental Education either. Bovary.

Fortunately (or probably, not) art is also central to the world’s metaphysics, ethics, and politcs.

(Sorry if this is a bit incoherent… Tired tonight...)

By CR on 09/18/05 at 10:23 PM | Permanent link to this comment

One feature of your analysis that stands out for me, Ray, is its specificity. The specific play seems to call out for more information on the larger political context. Could this same approach be extended beyond this play, to the rest of Marlowe’s work? the rest of Elizabethan drama? Western civilization?

One way theory often fails is by taking an explanation that works for an individual case & generalizing beyond that case. (Wittgenstein says something like this somewhere.)

By Lawrence LaRiviere White on 09/19/05 at 11:42 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Lawrence: Oddly, an attraction of the “theorists” I read (pre-1985 or so, anyway) was that they so strongly reinforced my impression that bullshit should be called on any such venture. It might be just a matter of which bullshitters are in charge at which time where.

As for extension: You pick up the artifact and see where it goes. It never leads the same place twice. (That being the relation of artifacts to organisms: staying still, they seem to move.) I already knew ways to connect this play to Marlowe’s other likely extent works, and they didn’t generate much interest. For painfully clear reasons, twenty years ago I wouldn’t have read the play quite the way I do now even if Wilson’s paper had been available. Hopefully, it’s just as clear that my “Elizabethan politics in one paragraph” was cat-suit-tailored to its purpose—I mean it to be accurate, but I wouldn’t submit it to Wikipedia. Your Mileage Must Vary.

Whether the results turn out worthwhile? Obviously I think it’s worth giving way to the critical impulse and finding out, but there aren’t guarantees one way or the other. I wouldn’t be at all shocked if Richard Wilson appeared and explained a dozen ways I’ve just made a complete fool of myself. As risks go nowadays, that’s a vacation.

CR: The thing is, though, my interest in the play was stirred and simmered by historicist and textual criticism. Neither my pre-existing political opinions nor “pure reading” would have sufficed. At the risk of muddling all discussion threads everywhere entirely beyond repair, it sounds like you’ve been burned by too much dull historicism or textual comparison while others have been burned by too much Theorist Pinball. For me, though, one of the exciting things the 1950s-1970s “theorists” did was firm up a framework for eclecticism.

To put it crudely: What literature has to offer is its distance, its status as communicative not-us. Getting bored students excited about that idea does seem like a tougher day job than mine. But it also seems the best theorists, like the best historicists, the best close readers, and so on, don’t themselves make the job any easier—they add wonderfully to the conversation once someone has broken the ice and we’re willing to entertain the notion that the conversation is worthwhile, but they alone won’t convince a skeptical MBA to spend more time in the English department.

Virtually any critical school can lend its name to grotesque pandering of one sort of another—literature as self-help (Proust Not Prozac) or self-expression or self-inflation or group-allegiance. And this is the sort of thing that makes a big name for the panderers and some hostility from those who love literature. Although I follow aspects of the humanities as a layperson, I’m hardly equipped to say who’s been influential lately and who hasn’t. But sometimes it seems to me that in your frustration, you hope for the rise of a new celebrity who makes sweeping claims, who would excite your students, and who you’d respect, and you blame groups in local power for this person’s absence. Like some other commenters, I wonder whether such a being is possible. My favorite works of Derrida start from texual minutiae scarcely distinguishable from the dust on the page. The most exciting feminist, African-American, queer, and pop cultural research hasn’t relied on sweeping claims but instead retrieved what earlier claims swept into the lime pits. Benjamin’s and Bakhtin’s influences were pretty delayed. Barthes maybe? All the others I can think of either seem contemptible, or were focused on particular enthusiasms, or worked in other disciplines—sociology, philosophy, psychology—framework stuff again.

It’s the nature of the beasts that literature outlasts its frameworks (until the framework holders start burning libraries). Since the mid-1980s, the most exciting framework stuff I’ve seen has come from neurosciences, social psychology, and those related fields sometimes heaped together as “the cognitive sciences.” They already have their share of panderers, but in giving a solid intellectual place to the arts (as opposed to treating art as a pathological symptom of bad theology, bad logic, class position, or sexual role), they compare to—well, nothing I can think of, actually, since Nietzsche didn’t found a worldwide chain of Gay Science Centers. The only time I’ve been seriously tempted by grad school was when a blogging compeer turned out to be doing a dissertation on detective fiction, audience history, and mental modeling.

By Ray Davis on 09/20/05 at 12:48 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"In 1592, Alleyn married Joan Woodward”.

Much like Paul Newman three and a half centuries later.

By John Emerson, first poster on 09/28/05 at 11:16 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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