How Far We’ve Come!

Well, it’s a pretty bleak ending to the semester.  I mean, pretty much all the stuff we’ve read for Modernism has been bleak.  The Joyce short stories.  “Dulce Et Decorum Est.”  The chaos of “The Waste Land.”  Alienation in To the Lighthouse.  But Endgame feels worse.  Beckett takes things a step further than the Modernists; they posed questions, and he gives an answer.  The Modernists were responding to industrialization, to the horrors of war, to all these sudden breaks in the established order; they were asking questions, doubting old certainties, wondering where to find meaning, struggling to cope with the chaos.  There is a sense of uncertainty, and often anxiety and stress.  If the Modernists’ writing can be characterized as an anguished cry—“Is there meaning?  Is there hope?”—then Beckett’s writing is a hollow laugh—“No, of course not.”  Actually, similar dialogue takes place in Endgame:

HAMM. We’re not beginning to…to…mean something?

CLOV. Mean something!  You and I, mean something! [Brief laugh.] Ah that’s a good one!

Wilfred Owen denounces patriotism and honor in the modern world, refers to it spitefully, bitterly as “the old lie.”  Like he’s upset, mad, confused.  The characters in Endgame denounce honor too, but they just laugh at it.  Cynical, emotionless, not upset.

NAGG. You swear?

HAMM. Yes.

NAGG. On what?

HAMM. My honor. [Pause.  They laugh heartily.] (2600)

            Endgame has a sense of resigned hopelessness and cynicism.  They say things like, “To hell with the universe” (2598) and “You’re on earth, there’s no cure for that” (2601).  It is grating to read or watch—uncomfortable, awkward, pitiful, sad.  The characters are shadows of men—weak, purposeless.  Of course, it’s not all resigned hopelessness and cynicism; there is some sense of weariness in the repeated question, “Why this farce, day after day?” (2585), and there is a small hope in Hamm’s wish to think that “perhaps it won’t all have been for nothing” (2593).  But that hope is quickly extinguished, and you just have to embrace the farce of life.  Human life is an absurd paradox.  We search for meaning in a universe that offers no meaning.

And to think—we started the semester so sure and secure and happy and clear!  I mean, sure, whatever, compare Beckett to the Modernists—but then think back to Robinson Crusoe.  Like, how long ago was that??  He was just puttering around, organizing stuff, all Enlightenment idealistic, talking about how great man is, how much better than the animals because he has thumbs and can make tools, and how he’s conquered nature and everything.  How awesome do we think humans are now?  And technology?  What a joke.  Idiot Robinson Crusoe.  C’mon man.

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Slavish Master in “Shooting an Elephant”

In one of my other classes, we read “The Handbook” by Epictetus, who was a Greek slave and a Stoic philosopher in the late 1st and early 2nd century AD.  Stoics’ big thing is duty.  The key to happiness, they say, is realizing what’s up to you and what isn’t.  The only thing that’s up to you is your free choice in accord with nature.  Your free will—nobody can take that from you.  They believe in providence—a universe that has order.  You can’t control how other people respond to what you do, you can’t control other events in your life, and you shouldn’t try to; all you have control over is your own free choice.  You just do your duty.  You don’t decide which part you get in the play of life, but you do have control over how well you play that part.  So anybody can be happy—not just the wealthy or the powerful—even slaves can be happy if they accept their place and do their duty.  That’s the basic idea.  In his book, Epictetus gives the example of a master who is constantly anxious about his slaves—whether or not they’ve obeyed him, did they make a careless mistake, etc.  He writes:

And it is better for your slave-boy to be bad than for you to be unhappy. Begin, therefore, with the little things. Your paltry oil gets spilled, your miserable wine stolen; say to yourself, “This is the price paid for a calm spirit, this the price for peace of mind.” Nothing is got without a price. And when you call your slave-boy, bear in mind that it is possible he may not heed you, and again, that even if he does heed, he may not do what you want done. But he is not in so happy a condition that your peace of mind depends upon him.

If a master is so stressed out about the behavior of his slaves, if his peace of mind rests upon them performing rightly, then in fact, he has become enslaved to them.  He’s trying to control something he can’t control, and has thus become a slavish master.  His slaves might be more “free” than he is, if they have a right understanding of what they have control over.  If they just focus on doing their duty and don’t worry about the rest.

Anyway, that’s what I thought of when I read this part in “Shooting an Elephant:”

I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind.  I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys.  He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib.  For it is the coordination of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives” and so in every criss he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him.

The narrator, and perhaps the empire itself, is a slavish master.  He seems to be the one with the power, with control over the situation, but in fact he is enslaved to the people over which he rules.  Enslaved to their expectations.  His peace of mind depends on them.  He doesn’t want to be laughed at.  He has to perform how they expect him to.  He isn’t really free.  I mean, it’s all just kind of high school cafeteria stuff.  Everybody’s concerned with what people think of them.  Nobody wants to be laughed at.  People want to be respected and taken seriously.  We don’t always do what we really think is the right thing to do because we decide to do what the crowd expects or wants us to do.

I don’t know if this Stoic reading of the short story really makes all that much sense.  I guess Stoics would argue against the whole premise—against empire-building.  One should accept the role that providence gives him or her and do one’s duty in that role, and not go seeking to gain more power for oneself.  And the narrator was technically following procedure—doing his duty.  But he wasn’t doing what he thought was right.  He was just swayed by the crowd.  And in that scene shows “the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East.”