Friday, March 20, 2015

Heroes, Hubris, & Honor: Job & Tamburlaine (2 March 2014)

            I am a great admirer of Job of the Biblical Poem of Job: not so much the pious sufferer from the Prolog or the rewarded .000001-Percenter of the Epilog but the wounded lover and tragic hero of the middle of the Book.

            You can complain if you like that Job wimps out in the end, but his final lines to God are

I had heard of You by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees You;
therefore I despise myself,
                and repent in dust and ashes. (42.5-6)

 Not while hearing sanctimonious lies from his "Comforters," not one instant before Job sees God does he repent, and in his repentance he uses that key word of human logic, therefore.

            Job gets the Beatific Vision and sees God in the whirlwind and, within human limitations, sees the real reality of things and, in terms of that expanded vision, repents. Or, if you like, Job sees God as a putz of infinite power and "therefore" wimps out in the face of infinite intimidation.

            Still — if you've ever knuckled under to a spouse or parent or boss or drill instructor or teacher, show some respect for Job standing up as long as he does to the God he's heard about and whose power to fuck over an individual human being he has excruciatingly felt.

            Job holds fast to his integrity, and for that we should admire him greatly.

            Integrity, though, has its limitations.

            The Book of Job is ultimately a kind of divine comedy — Job is restored: happy ending — if a comedy with a significant body count and unhappy endings for Job's extended family. Still, Richard B. Sewell knew what he was doing in using Job's story to begin his study of The Vision of Tragedy and having Job a theological variation on the theme of the tragic hero.

            Tragic heroes frequently have integrity up the whazoo, and moralist drama critics have accused them of Pride as a "tragic flaw."


            In The Poetics, Aristotle has tragic heroes with hamartia, but that probably means a "tragic," as in really bad, mistake. But in a nicely coherent drama that mistake should flow from the protagonist's character, and that character always and necessarily takes himself or herself — Antigone, Juliet, Cleopatra — very seriously. Tragic characters' integrity, viewed theologically, is the sort of Pride of which God accuses Job: what the Catholic Church calls Superbia, the sin of Satan, numero uno of the Seven Deadly sins and root of all evils: Radix malorum superbia est.

            From a god-like point of view, such Pride is ludicrous, and it doesn't take much to push superbia, the sin that goeth before a fall, and The Fall, into dumb-ass chutzpah: the pride that goeth before a pratfall, falling on your ass, while your friends point and laugh.

            Necessarily, tragic protagonists take themselves and their lives seriously enough to be guilty of hubris: in any realistic view of things, humans are not significant. That's humans, as in our species, to say nothing of any of us individually. To paraphrase the God of Paddy Chayefsky's Gideon (1961): Hey, you weren't here ten million years ago; you won't be here ten million years from now; what's the big deal with your dying now?

            Outside of "The Vision of Tragedy," tragic protagonists are guilty of sinful superbia or comic chutzpah; if the tragedy is working, though, we identify with the tragic protagonist and feel his — usually his — hubris as central to human dignity or self respect, while at the same time keeping our distance and viewing the character somewhat objectively. That is an actor up there on stage, the object of our vision and hearing, plus we know not to identify too much: in most tragedies there's going to be blood on the stage pretty soon — gore brings in the crowds — and a fair amount of that blood will probably come from the protagonist.

            But not always: and one hulking exception leads me into a problem with integrity as demonstrated by the first superstar, superhero of the English Renaissance stage — Ta Da! — Tamburlaine the Great, as depicted by that most excellent of English playwrights ca. 1590, Christopher Marlowe. Or, as the title page of the 1590 printing of Tamburlaine ("Deuided into two Tragicall Di∫cour∫es") put it
the Great.
Who, from a Scythian Shephearde,
by his rare and woonderfull Conqueƒts,
became a most puissant and migh-
tye Monarque,
And (for his tyranny, and terrour in
Warre) was tearmed,
The Scourge of God.

Actually, Tamburlaine is only one "Tragicall Discourse," and maybe not even one. Part II is a sequel following the commercial success of Part I, and Part II does end with Tamburlaine's death, so it's sort of "tragical." But just sort of: Tamburlaine dies at the height of his conquests, fairly old for his time and profession (full-time warrior) — and dies very quickly of natural causes. Now it would have been prudent to console Tamburlaine's family with a reference to "their tragic loss," or something like that, but — come on! — his death isn't even all that sad.

            Still, the rule is "kill 'em off or marry them off" and on the Elizabethan stage plays usually moved toward an "exeunt" with a funeral march (tragedy) or pairing off to dance away — sometimes literally — to a wedding (comedy). So Part II is, that, far, tragic: It begins with a funeral and ends with a funeral. Part I, though, is, like the full Book of Job, technically a comedy, in the case of Tamburlaine 1, a romantic comedy, ending with a new and … different world, one more purely noble and promising peace, finally coalescing around a central heterosexual and fertile couple exiting to get married.

            Significant here is that the new world of most comedies is marked as more flexible than the old world: minimally, a romantic comedy is flexible enough to allow one or more formerly "blocked" couples to pair off and marry. Marlowe's Tamburlaine is minutely more flexible at the end of Tamburlaine, Part 1, but only minutely: flexibility isn't in his character; integrity is: being true to himself, true to his sense of honor.

            This is important because Tamburlaine says of himself, in what we might call «the third-person Narcissistic» that, "His honour […] consists in shedding blood / When men presume to manage arms with him" (see 5.2.407-15). Except not just men, and not necessarily armed men. Shortly before this comment on his "honour," we have seen Tamburlaine order the murders of a delegation of girls from the City of Damascus who've come out to plead with him for the city — and then order the massacre of everyone in Damascus, relenting only to spare his near-future father-in-law. And in Part II we will see Tamburlaine's first on-stage, do-it-yourself atrocity in killing his own son, Calyphas, for being AWOL from a battle (Part II, 4.2.36-54).

            Hey, martial law is martial law, and if Tamburlaine's kid could skip a battle, then everyone might skip a battle, except that in the world of Marlowe's Tamburlaine just about every male except Calyphas and a relatively minor ruler is bloodthirsty.

            More important than martial law and tradition, though, is Tamburlaine's honor as integrity and sticking to his rules. If a city submits to him on the first day he and his troops set down before it, he's satisfied "with spoil," and "refuseth blood," i.e., he just robs everybody without killing them. If they hold out to the second day, when he takes the city — and Tamburlaine always wins — "Then must his kindled wrath be quenched with blood, / Not sparing any that can manage arms"; and if the enemy hold out into the third day, "Without respect of sex, degree, or age, / He razeth all his foes with fire and sword": i.e., he kills every human in town: men, women, and children (end of 4.1).

            Tamburlaine is a test case, or a reduction to the grotesque, of one vision of tragedy, and an important one. In "Tragedy and the Common Man" (1949), Arthur Miller says, "In the tragic view the need of man to wholly realize himself is the only fixed star, and whatever it is that hedges his nature and lowers it is ripe for attack and examination."

            The fine Shakespeare scholar Lawrence Lerner once asked if a couple hundred years in the future some author might apply Miller's idea and write a tragedy of Adolf Hitler.

            Marlowe was writing in the 1580s; the historical Timur Lang did his thing 1370-1405, and the historical Timur ranks #9 on Matthew White's "[…] One Hundred Deadliest Multicides" in world history, with a body count of some 17 million, putting Timur just behind the Mideast slave trade, 7th-19th centuries, but ahead, of the Atlantic slave trade, 1452-1807. In thirty-five years, in a rampage less than two centuries before Marlowe's time, the historical Timur made himself competitive, atrocity-wise, with two of the worst, long-running crimes in human history.

            But Tamburlaine has integrity — at least in Marlowe's version — and follows his idea of honor and pursues a major ideal of honor in his time, and for much of human history: He is, after all "Tamburlaine the Great."

            His most trusted officers beg Tamburlaine not to kill his own son; Tamburlaine kills the kid before our eyes. Tamburlaine declines to rape Zenocrate, the captured daughter of a Sultan, and honorably woos her and pledges himself to her — but he won't go against his customs and spare her city in spite of her pleas. He spares her father, finally, and ends Part I with a promise of peace and fertility, but the incredible climax of that play, not all that long before the conclusion, is the death in battle of Zenocrate's now-former fiancé and the massacre of the inhabitants of Damascus.

            Desiring to teach two works I really like, and perhaps too fond of alliteration, I taught together Tamburlaine and The Terminator (1984) for their examination of focus of purpose and just how we should define heroism and "manly men doing manly things." In Terminator, the ultimate macho-man turns out not to be not a man at all but a machine; Marlowe's Tamburlaine, at least in Part I, starts out and remains — our hero is nothing if not consistent — and increasingly reveals himself as a superman. Tamburlaine whups the asses of, as in kills, all the competing Alpha-, Beta-, and Gamma-males, and, since he's anachronistically a Renaissance superman, he's also a lover.

            The climax of Part I features that Massacre at Damascus, but the slaughter is off-stage. What is on-stage is Tamburlaine's first soliloquy, his "apostrophe" — here, a hymn of praise — to his beloved "divine Zenocrate."

            I used to ask my students what, if anything, they'd use for "noises off" while Tamburlaine was pronouncing his arguably fulsome praise of Zenocrate in what was, unarguably, some of the most impressive poetry in English up to that moment. Some blood-chilling screams from the dying, raped, and/or maimed might undermine Tamburlaine's eloquence here, but the speech doesn't have to be played that way, and it's highly unlikely that it was.

                  Tamburlaine said his "customs are as peremptory / As wrathful planets, death, or destiny" (5.2.64-65). If "A lie is worse than murder," as the Gentleman's Code used to teach, then wouldn't Tamburlaine be right to murder rather than break his word? Including murder every living thing — future father-in-law excepted — in Damascus? Tamburlaine is a modern, complete hero so a fighter and a lover, but in case of a conflict between the two roles — no contest: the implacable fighter wins.

            Tamburlaine Part I was enough of a hit to justify a sequel, as was The Terminator; and it is instructive that it was Arnold Schwarzenegger's T-800 that went into US pop culture and made Schwarzenegger a star, not Michael Biehn's human, humane, and humanistic Kyle Reese. (Remember Michael Biehn? He's still getting work, and he's rumored to have made good money; Arnold Schwarzenegger went on to marry a Kennedy, become governor of the State of California, and made a shitload of money.) In spite of the obvious intentions of James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd, T-800 steals the show in The Terminator, and the T-800 "Macho Creed" version of heroism and perversion of integrity is the take-away message from the film for a fair number of viewers, at least those of the seriously-dense, immature male persuasion.

            At least in Part I, I'm sure Christopher Marlowe wants us to admire Tamburlaine, and there is something admirable about the spirit of Tamburlaine in Part II when he defies the god — or God — he thinks is striking him down.

            Tamburlaine is admirable, sort of, in not going gently into death, but he's delusional in thinking his death is some sort of cosmic event. All men are mortal; Tamburlaine is a man — deal with it, "T".

            I am a great admirer of Job and the principle of integrity: of consistency and honesty, being true to oneself and possessing a keen sense of honor. But a lie is not worse than murder; Kyle Reese and (more so) Sarah Connor are the heroes and proper humans of Terminator; and Tamburlaine is a macho asshole on a world-historical scale, but still a macho asshole. In his integrity and honor Tamburlaine can be wondered at, even admired — but admired the way I admire a great white shark. Except that even the shark that rips me apart is innocent and relatively harmless; the Timur Lang of history was phenomenally dangerous and, after his fashion, Marlowe's Tamburlaine is dangerous and, finally, by the end of Part II, ridiculous.

Update (from a post by the BBC):

          Since independence in 1991 Uzbekistan has been restoring the legacy of its great 14th Century conqueror Tamerlane the Great - Amir Timur.
The current Uzbek leadership has eradicated most of the traces of the former Soviet Union's domination.
          Invoking the Timurid spirit in a televised address to the nation earlier this year, President Islam Karimov said: "You are descendants of a great people - you have in your hands the might of Tamerlane".

The Mongolian leadership has been rehabilitating Temujin, "The Great Khan" (1206-27), Timur's model. Matthew White estimates Genghis Khan's body count at 40 million, tying him with Mao Zedong (1949-76) for the second biggest mass slaughter in human history, exceeded only by World War II (66 million). Given the relative populations, Genghis Khan is likely the greatest mass killer in recorded human history, and Tamburlaine the Great competitive for number 2. To repeat a kind of cliché of English Renaissance political thought — you can find it in Shakespeare's Richard II — "Great" is different from "good."

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