Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The "Greek Drama" on Wall Street: Misreading Aristotle

It is only natural that we cast the events we read about in the news in a dramatic framework. Television has so saturated us with narrative that there are probably many who can only grasp a text if it is delivered in narrative form. However, once we get beyond the simplicity of network television, we discover narratives that are fraught with subtleties that cannot be explained away with straightforward answers to direct questions. If the life-world in which we are embedded is to be rendered in narrative, then the narratives will be those that display intricacy in both the tale and the way in which the tale is told, rather than those painfully predictable stories that do little more than draw viewers to advertisements for cars and pharmaceuticals.

The narrative currently unfolding on Wall Street is definitely such a life-world narrative, and its complexity seems to bring out the worst in our pundits. They value the metaphor but then inflate their words by hitching it to intimidating concepts that they do not understand; and the most incomprehensible of those concepts is usually the products of ancient Greek theater. Thus, we are likely to encounter a fair amount of ink spilled in commentary, which, as Loretta Napoleoni did in her Huffington Post blog post this morning, appealed to the spirit of "Modern-Day Greek Tragedy." As an author of bestselling books on such topics and the financing of terrorism, Napoleoni can hardly be called a slouch in the area of narrative; but invoking Greek source material that one does not understand is nothing more than a rhetorical ploy of attracting attention through pretension. So it might make sense to clear the air by going back to Aristotle, because the old guy may have a thing or two to tell us about how we should be viewing an ongoing situation that certainly deserves to be called "dramatic."

We cannot invoke the ancient Greeks without first grasping the concept of "tragedy," which happens to be a major focal point of Aristotle's "Poetics." We tend to deal with the opposition of tragedy and comedy in terms of simplistic formulas:

  • Comedy makes you glad; tragedy makes you sad.
  • Comedy ends in marriage; comedy ends in death.

Some might even try to convince you that these formulas can be traced back to Aristotle, but nothing would be further from the truth. In addressing the difference between comedy and tragedy, Leon Golden's translation of "Poetics" says that "the former takes as its goal the representation of men as worse, the latter as better, than the norm." Furthermore, the entirety of "Poetics" is essentially about the nature of "imitation." From this point of view, Aristotle's argument then unfolds into the principle that tragedy is concerned with noble men, while comedy "is an imitation of baser men." Both these perspectives, the opposition of noble and base and the relation to the norm, need to be examined if we are to attempt to view Wall Street through a "dramatic lens."

These two perspectives are, of course, related. The very adjective "base" has a connotation of being lower, which would mean lower than some normative standard. Indeed, the word Golden chose is actually Latin in origin; but the actual word in Aristotle is φαϋλος, which, when applied to persons, can mean "low in rank." Similarly, "noble" is based on Latin; and the actual word that Aristotle uses is σπουδαϊος, which is used to denote earnestness but with an "above average" connotation. However, some good examples are likely to be far more informative than Greek lexemics!

The best place to look for "baser men" is in Aristophanes. My favorite example is the two dung collectors whom we encounter at the beginning of Peace. Their task as about as far from the norm as you can get; and, if you are to apply a directional metaphor, it is certainly "down" to earth! Their task is also clearly reflected in the way they talk. Not only do they talk directly about the subject matter of their work, but they tend to apply those same words to other topics of discourse. They are, in a very clear sense, a perfect example of how we "live by" our metaphors according to principles outlined in the now-famous book by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.

Aristotle's sense of nobility, on the other hand, has nothing to do with lineage; but it usually has to do with rank. For example, Oedipus rules over Thebes, not because he is of royal birth (although the whole plot turns around the question of his lineage) but because he has saved the city from the terror of the Sphinx. On the other hand, just to emphasize my use of "usually," Antigone's nobility comes from her allegiance to her family line, while Creon's comes from his position as ruler (regardless of the circumstances under which he acquired that position). Thus, Antigone is about the αγών (antagonism) between two nobles, rather than a conflict between a woman of "noble sentiments" and a "basely unsympathetic" ruler.

How, then, are we to view the dramatis personae in the events currently unfolding on Wall Street? This is clearly a matter of personal opinion, so all I can do is give my own. Personally, I find it interesting to look at how some other authors have chosen to view such characters. For example all of the principal characters in David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross definitely fall into the "base" category in both their speech (that great Mamet calling-card) and their deeds. Similarly, while Gordon Gekko may be treated nobly by the audience that listens to his sermon in praise of greed, it is pretty clear that authors Stanley Weiser and Oliver Stone saw him as base as the real estate dealers in Glengarry Glen Ross. In other words both of these authors see their respective situations as fundamentally comedic; and Mamet's script even falls back on one of those "simplistic formulas" by conjuring up some real belly-laugh moments (although when I saw the play on Broadway I was acutely aware that the man sitting next to me never laughed once, which I took as an indication of what he did for a living).

So is there any justification for viewing the current Wall Street events as tragedy? Since Napoleoni got me thinking about this question in the first place, let's see what she has to say:

For the ancient Greeks the roots of all tragedies lie in men's uncontrollable passions: love, hate, power and greed. Carlyle Capital's and Bear Stearns' destinies confirm this belief. Bear and Carlyle are deeply intertwined because they both jumped on the easy credit bandwagon to make money. In other words, greed motivated them. Both had reputations of being highly aggressive and competitive-ruthless, many in Wall Street would add. But these characteristics are common in globalized finance where the old fashioned rules of the game are ignored or simply forgotten. What brought down Carlyle Capital and crippled Bear Stearns was not their business behavior but the sub-prime house of cards they contributed to building. Their fall was an event that was bound to happen but that none of them was willing to consider. And in the best Greek tragedies, those who fall are given the chance to avoid disaster.

Unfortunately, I would see this as a misreading of the tragedy texts that would complement her apparent unawareness of Aristotle's theoretical insights. I suppose there are some who would call Antigone's passion for her slain brother "uncontrollable;" but the texts that Sophocles gives her strike me as closer to the rational arguments that Socrates invoked to plead his case in the trial that would lead to his death than to "uncontrollable passions." I'm not sure I would even attribute the death of Laius at the hand of Oedipus to be an act of "uncontrollable passion," rather than the sort of fight that would break out between strangers with a fatal consequence. In any event the "root" of Oedipus Rex lies in Oedipus' determination to save the city of Thebes from a curse that has brought on a plague; and he does this through his persistence in revealing the events that brought on that curse. For all the pain that the truth brings, it is clear from Oedipus at Colonus that Sophocles sees him emerging from the experience as "better than the norm." It is not disaster that Oedipus is given chances to avoid but the revelation of a truth that must be revealed for the benefit of Thebes, regardless of its impact on Oedipus. This is a radical departure from normative behavior in any setting; and, when he leaves the stage at the end of Oedipus Rex, the Chorus has nothing but sympathy for him.

This brings us back to how we view our current situation in terms of normative behavior. Perhaps the real dramatic question behind this situation has less to do with whether or not the characters are better or worse than the norm and more to do with whether that norm has been changing. When Gordon Gekko captivates his audience by sermonizing on the virtues of greed, is he changing a normative standard of behavior or recognizing that the standard has already changed and advocating that we embrace that change? If we return to John Kenneth Galbraith's perspective on economic history, which I applied yesterday to my analysis of Bush's remarks on the economic crisis, it would be fair to say that the normative standard has never been particularly high. For that matter, while the script for John Adams did not mention that John Hancock was the richest delegate to the Continental Congress, it did make it clear that he acquired his wealth through smuggling; so a low normative standard is part of the very origins of the United States of America!

This probably tells us about what really matters as current events unfold. An elevated standard of normative behavior is little more than a myth that gets taught in the course of an undergraduate education to students who probably spend most of their time in that particular classroom asleep or daydreaming. The "standard that matters" is not behavioral; it is the standard of the individual's net worth. Horatio Alger's stories are not so much about being a better person as they are about securing one's proper place in society; and that place is deemed "proper" by virtue of the fact that the individual is not financially dependent on others. In the period following the Second World War, a similar logic was applied to entire countries on the basis of the ability of the Gross National Product to support the population; and, while the language around such thinking has evolved, the basic thoughts are still with us (and now in more countries than we could have anticipated).

Needless to say, Aristotle did not have such a norm in mind in his "Poetics;" and, personally, I would find it ludicrous to view drama in terms of acts that either raise or lower the net worth of the characters. However, if we want to talk about real norms, then I suspect that mine is the opinion of a pathetically dwindling minority. Indeed, what would be the objective of a War Against the Poor if not the further lowering of the net worth of those for whom it is already significantly low? If that is the case, then we are not in the domain of the narratives of ancient Greek tragedy. Rather, we are in the realm of the siege mentality, which is the foundation of Homer's Iliad; and we are watching the pursuit of individual forays of that siege every day. I have to wonder, though, whether those who emerge from that siege (assuming anyone is left to emerge) will be left in a world without poets and dramatists, in which case any arguments we have today over the validity of the metaphor of "Greek tragedy" are likely to be futile!

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