Wednesday, March 19, 2008

King Lear, Obama, Political Discourse

I have been thinking about Cordelia, unahappy Cordelia, whose love is more ponderous than her tongue, who cannot heave her heart into her mouth to save her life. It's too easy to attribute her reticence to character alone, a mere refusal to indulge in flattery; I cannot help but sense that there is more to this than an over scrupulous fidelity to naked truth. This is more than a complaint, a confession that she has no way with words: Love and be silent, she says, a plain imperative belying incapacity--and when she does speak, her words, unadorned, have more force, both of affect and of reason, than the polished speeches of her two sisters, which she exposes with a few quick strokes for the lies that they are.

... But to no avail.

Is that the answer? Does Cordelia alone (with the Fool--who handles the problem by different means) see the fault in language itself? --the inadequacy of speech to represent the truth, while words lend themselves perfectly to the machinations of the lie? How much of this play we could interpret following that line of thought: Edmund lying to Gloucester by speaking the truth in his false defense of Edgar. Kent, who takes on a false identity to serve his King, and thus remain true to himself--and to a greater truth. I thought this a good take--and let it play a part in the discussions with my students, and then, listening to Barack Obama's speech in Philadelphia, I realized I'd missed something important in that first scene.

It was the sense of shock that woke me to the neglected element--that I was listening to a political speech, a formal presentation--that sounded like nothing I'd heard in that context for so long that I'd forgotten such speech was possible. Yes, this was political rhetoric--fashioned to accomplish a calculated end--but at the same time, it was more and other. There were places in that speech where calculation overcame the other, but they did not dominate the whole.

I'm at a loss to accurately account for what it was that raised this address to a level so beyond what we've been accustomed to accept as the norm. It has to do, I think, with a certain tension that I felt between, on the one hand, the calculated means taken to succeed in the end Obama wanted to accomplish, and--not merely the "expression" of ... but the creation of... in the very act of speaking... of a presence, and a deeper purpose--of being true to that presence before others. Both were there.

Reflecting back on that first scene in Lear, I recognized what I'd missed, and its importance. Lear is speaking in courtly mode, ceremonial speech, dividing his kingdom, requesting in return, a ceremonial confirmation of filial piety and love. That is what Cordelia resists. It is not that language in itself is false--as though words were incapable of representing or expressing truth,--but that Lear had requested something that belongs to him--not as King, but as father--and not merely requested, but demanded--be delivered in purely ceremonial guise, and in this, he has corrupted the fundament of both social and personal order.

I think of how we have suffered from the corruption of public speech, and now it comes to me why I so chaffed at George Lakoff's "framing" arguments... as though all liberals had to do to counter the Reagon/Rovian corruption of political discourse was to imitate its methods, but justified by "purer ends!" The manipulation of the manipulated by the manipulators... to the end of time.

It's not a speech that makes the difference, dissect it how you will. If there is, in reality, cause for "hope," wherein does it lie, if not in being reminded what we have all but forgotten.... that speech, which through setting itself the task of imagining the reality of the other, brings into being at the same time, the reality of the speaker... in the act of being true to himself? The speech act.. as Hannah Arendt understood it, as every responsive action in the public sphere, releases unanticipated consequences.... not the sort of plans run aground by insufficient planning... but of a kind that are the ground and source of freedom itself... and of hope.

I am too old to ever again place my hopes in any individual. There is no one I've admired, I've not been equally disappointed by. It's not about Barack Obama, but to something he seems, more than any politician in memory, to have pledged himself to... in speech. About speech. About the possibilities of language to overcome its corrupters. I can only hope he will remain true to that. But he has renewed my trust--not in the person, in any person... but the power we have been given through language... and the power of speech to reunite the ceremonial, the ritual, the calculated... with that something more deeply interfused that we know, but cannot name, to be the ground of our being and of our hope.

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