The art of being difficult

January 1, 2013

Stick-to-it-ive-ness (adj.) a celebrated spectator sport that the sensible participant disowns unconvincingly with the following 3:10 to Yuma line: “I’m not stubborn.”

I was horrified when my mother brought home our newest family member, and not without reason. The other dogs initially snarled at her approach, predictably. And my mother handled it cluelessly, as usual. She tried smearing peanut butter on the puppy’s face to induce the other dogs to “show affection” by licking it off. No dice.

Instead the interloper figured out that making us want to kill her won’t actually get her killed.

 “…you’d best make peace with your dear and fluffy lord.”

The fruit slicing scene at the end of Empire of the Sun captures this sentiment. The children in this scene are by now well aware that risk of death is pervasive and its timing irrational, though one should not risk being caught off-guard.

They also realize that constant fear is untenable – they would rather play at being warriors themselves in the act of skinning a mango, than accept noncombatant status and cower in the human wilderness. They have a boyish disrespect for efficiency of motive or obedience to the discipline of good timing, spirited and foolhardy. Hence the plot in one line: “Boy. Difficult boy.”

I think one thing making this harder for me to figure out is the way I hate combative behaviors. I’ve had more than enough exposure to anger addiction, and I don’t want to play. But resenting someone’s effort to make you angry isn’t a very effective way of refusing to give that person traction for the gears of arbitrarily combative relationship dynamics.

Passive disdain works no worse than cultivating understanding with your enemies. Mingling pity with your abstention from inane argumentativeness only works from a safe distance, so one can only assume people who advise charity toward your enemies don’t have experience with enemies. Indulgences and disdain are widely presumed to go together, and assailants get defensive about the importance of dignity, taking understanding gestures as insults as often as not.

If passion rules reason, philosophers like Martha Nussbaum would argue that the emotional life is exactly where the compassion in our sense of justice comes from – though we’re not honest enough with ourselves, about how well we live up to the ideals implied by our gut feelings. Superstitions like the Greek gods (of love, of fear, etc.) formalize respect for emotional forces beyond our control, but piety is moved by fear.

Fear that one emotion will show itself in us, at a moment that belies our pretenses about entertaining another, less frowned upon attitude, the sentiment propriety expects of us, toward the situation in which we are revealed as hypocrites.

“Myths are stories about people who become too big for their lives temporarily, .. they crash into other lives or brush against gods.” But in drama, actors can foreground the day-to-day lived experience of collision with the stuff of adventure. They divert our attention away from the formulaic plot and towards the lives caught up in it, to what writers like Euripides sought to reveal through the myths – simply “what it’s like to be a human being in a family, in a fantasy, in a longing, in a mistake.”


The point of view of dandelions on the moon.

To move freely among roles, actors must be able to accept the reality of a point of view itself, an imperfect conviction about the truth, without losing sight of the possibility of a “true” way of realizing the role, though there are to be multiple solutions. Thus the subjectivity of performance qualifies the truth not with radical relativism, but by degrees. The ideas conveyed in performance moments can have truth, yet the truth they convey is situational in many respects, even if to capture such a truth the performance must transcend the situation in important ways.

Of course, some of the ways in which the theatrical mask works entail adopting aspirational hypocrisies – or at any rate, telling the audience what they want to hear about their heroes and villains. But the tastes of audiences also vary in this regard. The genius of a movie like Gladiator is that it plays to both sides: those who taste bitterness and fight with stoic reservations, and those who relish the sight of blood.

The hero and villain blur together when highly effective violence steals the scene. It has always been a commonplace that audiences feel self-righteously indignant over the exploits of villains doing exactly what they themselves would be pleased to do under similar circumstances:

The gap between stage feeling and ordinary feeling, it appears, may be regarded as the symptom or correlative of a form of deep hypocrisy in our personal and social life.

All Theater is Revolutionary Theater

Gollum’s striking depravity as a creature bound to the ring as no animal can naturally feel bound to anything is quite frightening when it shifts through relatively relatable human emotions and allows us to glimpse ourselves in him, in a monster with utterly degrading attachments, to whom the only sensible thing to say is, “you’re hopeless.” But attachments are naturally degrading.

The more reluctant you are to let something go, the more desperately you will behave to obtain or keep it, and if you are not shameless, then you will hate yourself.

“…Pray you never feel the same kind of remorse…”

The stage hero’s taste of self-loathing is less terrible, but still more memorable than his moment of greatness. Luke Skywalker finds his own face under Darth Vader’s mask in a dream, Frodo glimpses himself in Gollum, Denna twists Richard until his compassion turns toward her when all else is denied.

Self-love is not so vile as self-neglect, and yet the price.

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