The End of Mourning: On Tony Kushner
By Jess RowMarch 15, 2012
The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Communism With a Key to the Scriptures by Tony Kushner
IT WAS KIERKEGAARD WHO SAID that life must be lived forward, though it can only be understood backward, but it just as well could have been — should have been — Marx, or one of his followers, because there has never been a thinker, or a tradition, more consumed with two paradoxical impulses: to interpret the past and to shape the future. Even in The Communist Manifesto, surely the most forward-looking of all Marxist texts, Marx and Engels pause in Section Three to settle old scores, dividing all other socialist movements into neat categories and ticking off their failures with shrewish glee. (Feudal socialism “picks up the golden apples dropped from the tree of industry”; petty-bourgeois socialism “ended in a miserable fit of the blues.”) It’s difficult to imagine what the average member of the Communist Party in the nineteenth century — who might have carried the Manifesto into battle, or hidden it in a shoe, at the risk of being hanged for possessing it — made of this section, other than to conclude that every great book has parts you can skip over. But for Marxist intellectuals, and artists, ever since, the problem that Section Three embodies has serious, even lethal, importance: how does one balance the luxury of a well-turned phrase, a precise assessment, with the imperative to act? “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it,” Marx blithely wrote in his eleventh thesis on Ludwig Feuberbach — as usual, making it sound easy.
It hasn’t been easy. In the West, at least since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, it has been all but impossible, except in certain rarefied circumstances, to be a Marxist, period. Not because the ideas or the iconography have disappeared — quite the opposite — but because Marxism has been marked, so decisively, as a failed project, a dead language, an object of study and nostalgia. “We are heirs of Marxism, even before wanting or refusing to be,” Jacques Derrida wrote in his epochal 1993 book Specters of Marx, “and like all inheritors, we are in mourning”:
That we are heirs does not mean that we have or that we receive this or that, some inheritance that enriches us one day with this or that, but that the being of what we are is first of all inheritance, whether we like it or know it or not. And that, as Hölderlin said so well, we can only bear witness to it.
Another way of putting this might be simply to say that many of us have spent the last decades living in a disappointed age, an age in which the entire notion of “revolution” became a joke, a meaningless euphemism. This applies even to those of us who are, in one way or another, repositories of revolutionary artifacts — documents, rhetoric, memories, images — passed down from our parents and grandparents, or, if we’re old enough, from our own past selves.
One could fill up a bookshelf with explanations for this state of affairs, but of course the primary reason, the default reason, is that nearly everyone in the West still believes — whether or not we would admit it in precisely these terms — that in 1989, communism lost. Capitalism won. Or, to put it in more strictly American terms, “they” lost, and “we” won. We’ve gone on accepting this as a simple fact, as “common sense,” even though, as the Italian socialist Noberto Bobbio put it in that year, the actual facts say something quite different:
Historical communism has failed, I don’t deny it. But the problems remain — those same problems pointed out and held to be solvable, and which now exist, or very soon will, on a world scale. Do people really think that the end of historical communism has put an end to poverty and the thirst for justice? In our world the two-thirds society rules and prospers without having anything to fear from the third of poor devils. But it would be good to bear in mind that in the rest of the world, the two-thirds (or four-fifths or nine-tenths) society is on the other side.
Of course it’s not fair to accuse the postcommunist liberal establishment, since 1989, either of ignoring the problems of poverty and class injustice or of not trying to solve them. It’s not fair to say that the advocates of globalization, free trade, international treaties, foreign aid, microfinance — I have in mind particularly the kind of people who turn up at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, people like Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Bono, Jeffrey Sachs, et al — did not, do not, sincerely believe that a rising tide lifts all boats, that capital gains ultimately trickle down, that T-shirts can stop AIDS, and that ultimately it’s justifiable for the ruling classes throughout the world to go on amassing resources as long as they sincerely care and think really hard about the people they exploit and expend. But all hypotheses need a horizon, an end date, and the horizon for globalization has already been reached; as with the USSR in the eighties, the ideologues have mostly died or left town, and the cynics and gangsters are mopping up the remains.
Meanwhile, in the United States, the move toward privatization that began with Reagan has given us a country with a tiny, hyper-rich ruling class; a well-educated, cloistered, nominally liberal but fiercely self-protective and self-perpetuating professional and creative elite; a vast “middle class” that has been on the decline for two or three generations because stagnant wages, the loss of manufacturing jobs, unaffordable health care, exploitative student loans, exploding real estate prices, and all-but-compulsory consumer debt; and an almost equally vast population below the poverty line, whose problems (and faces) are now virtually invisible, even on TV. And what binds us together, or, at least, what gives us the remains of a national character, is the mystified worship of commodities, money, and a symbolic order of “taste” and “choice.” We are a country of lifestyles, facades, and surfaces; this is nothing new, but it is more intensely so, and nearly every form of resistance in the cultural sphere has been co-opted and commodified as the expression of a subculture or a “lifestyle.”
Which makes it easy to understand why, even though Marxist ideas are being taught — in texts by John Berger (Ways of Seeing is a college composition mainstay), Benjamin, Adorno, Jameson, Baudrillard, Gramsci, Virilio, Spivak, Kristeva, Deleuze and Guattari, and that rock star of postmodern academia, Slavoj Žižek — almost no one in this country declares himself a “Marxist.” Capitalism has become so successful, so rapacious, and so dominant that it no longer seems possible to find an alternative of any kind; meanwhile, “Marxism” exists now as an endlessly proliferating species of discourse, a scholastic pursuit, only hypothetically concerned with the possible return of a class struggle. Or, as stated succinctly by Gus Marcantonio, the communist patriarch of Tony Kushner’s new play: “Now I see only what most people see, a fixed system. I can’t see an agent, a class, capable of altering that system’s fixity.”
In other words, capitalism didn’t simply win; Marxism lost. The political ideology of a democratic state essentially governed by financiers, corporate interests, and their allies survives not because it is omnipotent or even terribly admired, but because the competition, Marxism, failed, not just in Stalinist and post-Stalinist Russia, in Maoist China or Khmer Rouge Cambodia, but in Europe, in Latin America, and everywhere else it was attempted. The dialectic in dialectical materialism simply failed to materialize.
Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau’s 1985 Hegemony and Socialist Strategy suggested that classical Marxist political theory fell apart in the early twentieth century when it became clear that there was no necessary correlation between the interests of a given economic class and the “political task” they might take up. There is no guarantee that any particular person, or economic class, will embrace political causes on the basis of their own economic self-interest — as Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? illustrated, many relatively disadvantaged voters identify with conservative politics that work against their own interests, and, vice versa, many wealthy liberals advocate levying themselves higher taxes. This poses a dramatic problem for classical Marxism, which assumes the proletariat will eventually solidify into a politically engaged revolutionary class.
Then what is to be done? Laclau and Mouffe argue Marxists should turn to the “new forms of struggle in the advanced capitalist countries”: feminism, gay liberation, movements for civil rights and equal representation across races and ethnicities, the environmental movement, the human rights movement, and so on — the types of causes Marxists have traditionally derided as mere “single-issue mobilization.” Laclau and Mouffe see these “single issues” as the only possible ground on which to create a new and transformed consensus, focused on the redistribution of wealth.
And, as it turns out, they seem to be right. The Occupy movement, which exploded seemingly out of nowhere in Zuccotti Park on September 17, 2011, is, precisely as they predicted, an enormous coalition, representing all the constituencies above, and forming together something more than the sum of their parts — something like an entirely new way of describing the world. Perhaps the dominant feature of the movement, so far, is its sheer openness, its resistance to categorization or to “rational” agenda-building. Hegemony, we might say, is at stake; the neoliberal consensus itself may be at stake. What comes after that remains, by design, an open question.
In his 1994 essay “A Socialism of the Skin (Liberation, Honey!),” Tony Kushner takes up Mouffe and Laclau’s rhetoric: “Are officially sanctioned homosexual marriages and identifiably homosexual soldiers the ultimate aims of homosexual liberation?” he asks, clearly answering his own question:
Clearly not, if by homosexual liberation we mean the liberation of homosexuals who, like most everyone else, are and will continue to be oppressed by the depredations of capital until some better way of living together can be arrived at.
The signature phrase here, of course, is “like most everyone else.” The simplest word for this is the old-fashioned “solidarity,” but that carries with it too many unpleasant and ridiculous connotations, like climbing over fences in Polish shipyards. Kushner chooses to call it, wonderfully, “socialism of the skin,” going on to say, “Our task is to confront the political problematics of desire and repression,” and furthermore to do justice to the utopian dreams of Stonewall and socialism itself:
Socialism as an alternative to individualism politically and capitalism economically must surely have as its ultimate objective the restitution of the joy of living we may have lost when we first picked up a tool. Towards what other objective is it worthy to strive?
Of the very small handful of American writers working today who take Marxism seriously, and who write for a large audience, Kushner is (if you’ll pardon the expression) in a class by himself. He has arrived at this stature not only from sheer artistic skill and hubris, though that plays a large part, but because he has been able to put Groucho and Karl together in the same room, making highly topical plays that are funny, accessible, sexually charged (if not actually erotic), and dramatically compact, even as they stretch across hours and hours of discursive conversation and elaborately staged spectacle.
But is “taking Marxism seriously” the same thing as “being a Marxist playwright”? Almost certainly not. Kushner treats his Marxism almost as he treats his sexual orientation — as an indelible, unquestionable, but also burdensome and comically stereotypical aspect of his human nature. By foregrounding these identities in his comedy, making them manipulable signs, Kushner deftly inserts himself into the mainstream: a playwright of gayness rather than a gay playwright. Of course, the great cosmic hubris of Angels in America — which transformed his career, American theater, and indeed the national discourse itself — was to take this process one step further and assert himself as a playwright of gayness, Marxism, and the idea of America itself, to create (almost alone in the literature of 1975-2000) a national epic that actually wanted to be one.
What strikes me about Angels, a much-discussed work (and rightly so), is how much it owes, explicitly, to Harold Bloom’s American theology: that is, his view that the American national religion is a kind of “debased Gnosticism.” Indeed, Prior Walter’s journey to the Heaven of overworked, hostile bureaucrats comes straight out of a Gnostic playbook. Another way of looking at Angels is to see it as an agonistic struggle with Kushner’s primary literary progenitor, Bertolt Brecht, and his concept of the epic theater. Angels clearly is not very interested in engaging with the traditions of mainstream American theater, let alone American leftist or socialist theater — Clifford Odets, Arthur Miller, and so on. It intends to operate on a different level, and it does. While its themes are national, its dramatic heart is not. Brecht intended the epic theater to hearken back to Wagner’s concept of the gesamtkunstwerk, the “total work of art,” and Angels is very much that: an experience that overwhelms our senses, that comes from every direction and operates on every level, from the most debased to the most holy.
The play is almost inextricable from its moment in time, and this is why, even though it’s probably the most important American play of the last 30 years, it may not survive much longer as a vital cultural artifact. Written as an exorcism and an act of mass catharsis, vengeance, and indictment, it can’t be read and felt without some supplementary knowledge of the cultural context — not only the horror of the epidemic itself but the political forces that helped suppress AIDS research and treatment throughout much of the 1980s. Its excesses, and particularly the mildly embarrassing announcements of its final scene, all stem from the sheer righteous rage that produced it.
In a sense, though, at least to me, this is what makes it all the more significant, and still, in the broadest sense, revolutionary: Angels in America defies the orthodox separation of cultural and political spheres in American life, but also the separation of religious and secular spheres; it creates a countermyth that we are supposed to, at least for a time, take completely seriously, but also uses what is almost documentary material drawn from the historical record of Roy Cohn’s last months and days, and, most important of all, makes us a serious, historical promise: that the revolutionary movement — in this case the movement for proper AIDS funding and for gay rights for generally — will succeed. Many kinds of literature are “performative” (a word now so overused as to lose most of its force) but Angels in America, probably more than any other American literary text of its time, is prophetic, in the double sense of predicting something and helping to bring it about.
In the years between Angels (first produced in full in 1992) and The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide, Kushner has produced many one-act plays and several full-length works, including Slavs!, a hilarious pageant about the final days of the USSR, and Hydriotaphia, a brutal, brawling play about the death of the seventeenth-century antiquarian, doctor, and essayist Sir Thomas Browne. Probably the two post-Angels works most readers have heard of are the musical Caroline, or Change and Homebody/Kabul, a play about Afghanistan that Kushner began writing in the late 1990s, after the U.S. bombing of Taliban camps in Khost, but which had its New York premiere in November 2001. Homebody/Kabul, whose extended opening monologue bears a strong resemblance to Wallace Shawn’s The Fever, is a melodrama about liberal guilt and the West’s relationship to the Third World, particular to countries it has colonized, brutalized, and abandoned. Compared to Kushner’s other work, it’s extremely earnest, and a little humorless, about its subject; he includes long sections of dialogue in Pashto and Dari, as well as much revelatory historical and cultural material, which makes the play seem like a thesis project by an extremely zealous graduate student. Caroline, or Change, on the other hand, is a very affecting, and beautifully scored, story drawn from Kushner’s childhood in Lake Charles, Louisiana, about the relationship between a privileged white child and the nanny he loves and unthinkingly betrays.
Caroline, which could be described as a more acerbic, self-conscious version of Neil Simon or Alfred Uhry, also signaled Kushner’s interest in producing works that could succeed in more conventional, mainstream settings, and it was partly successful, moving from the Public Theater to Broadway for several months in 2004. But despite all the successes Kushner has had since 1993, his career (as he himself has attested) has been completely overshadowed by early success; every new play he produces is supposed to be the “next” Angels in America. Which might explain the hyperventilating title of The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Communism with a Key to the Scriptures: a way for Kushner to simultaneously mock his doubters and dangle, perhaps once and for all, the promise of a definitive word, a third act, on his reinvention of political theater in America.
The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide is about the dissolution of a patriarchy, the falling apart of a patriarchal family, in the immediate sense, through the weakness of the patriarch, and then (as the dissolution of any patriarchy implies) the collapse of the social order around it. The form, which hews very closely to Greek tragedy, centers on the revelation of the patriarch’s wound, the source of the secret shame that has bound the family together. The patriarch plays the hero, the scapegoat, the martyr, and the Demiurge all at once; the symbolic order is entirely bound up with him, and if the characters stray too far away from him, the drama loses its vital interest.
Kushner uses an element of the “family play” too: the iconography of the common-man-as-tragic-hero, which Miller made explicit in his essay “Tragedy and the Common Man,” originally published as a response to reviews of Death of a Salesman:
The tragic night is a condition of life, a condition in which the human personality is able to flower and realize itself. The wrong is the condition which suppresses man, perverts the flowing out of his love and creative instinct. Tragedy enlightens —and it must, in that it points the heroic finger at the enemy of man’s freedom. The thrust for freedom is the quality in tragedy which exalts. The revolutionary questioning of the stable environment is what terrifies. In no way is the common man debarred from such thoughts or such actions.
Leaving out the word “tragedy,” this language might have come straight out of the Communist Manifesto; thrusting an allegorical lens over Willy Loman, it makes it impossible to view him as anything other than a noble sufferer, even if our reading of Salesman might lead us to a very different conclusion. Kushner’s treatment of his play’s patriarch, Gus Marcantonio, almost inevitably falls into the same familiar groove, all the more so because Gus, unlike Willy Loman, is a self-conscious hero, a narrator and analyst of his own fate, and a hagiographer in his own right, stubbornly keeping alive the memories of his Italian communist forebears. In the play’s final moments, he opens a dusty leather case, hidden behind the walls of his own living room for nearly a century, and discovers a copy of the Manifesto in Italian, left behind by an operative headed back to the old country to carry out an assassination. The heroic age, clearly, is long past, and what do we have left? A dustbin, a vitrine, an archive, a grave.
In a sense the whole problem of the play lies in this feeling of belatedness, or redundancy: the way in which it pays lip service to the present but invests all real feeling in the past. The central dilemma, the dividing up of an estate — Gus’s home in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, once a working-class Italian enclave, now a trendy neighborhood for young bohos — among a fractious family, is so overtly schematic and stylized that the contemporary life of the city itself hardly enters in at all, except in brief, hysterical bursts from Gus’s Korean-American daughter-in-law, Sooze. Even the joyful, self-indulgent, histrionic interjections of political theory and theology that color all of Kushner’s work, like the intermittent, discordant songs Brecht called for, feel here a little rote and beside the point. Gus, the play’s eternal center of gravity, has spent a lifetime drumming orthodox Marxist-Leninism into his children’s heads, and he only has to lift a finger to hear someone else repeat what he is thinking. Theory, here, is not a liberating discovery but a joyless burden, not only to Gus’s three children, Pill, Empty (a labor lawyer), and V (a building contractor and rageful, Limbaugh-style conservative) but to their spouses, two of whom are professional, nonbelieving theologians.
It’s a dispirited and dispiriting group, and after the first act one begins to anticipate how the revelations and reversals will stack up: Gus is revealed to be nursing a guilty conscience over the betrayal of union comrades in the seventies; Empty has cheated on her female partner with her ex-husband; Pill has betrayed his husband with a young prostitute from Yale named Eli; and so on. As with Long Day’s Journey Into Night and Death of a Salesman, the tragic model requires that Kushner leave no man or woman standing, no one unimplicated, except perhaps for a clown or late-arriving observer (in this case, Sooze). This makes for entertaining, if not always moving, drama, but perhaps only in the sense that Brecht, in his essay on opera and the epic theater, called “culinary” — “it furthers pleasure even where it requires, or promotes, a certain degree of education, for the education in question is an education of taste.” It makes Marxism itself into a kind of nostalgic fetish, in the sense that, we might say, O’Neill turned Irishness into a nostalgic fetish — a bitter inheritance that is nonetheless noble, a family weakness one can only be proud of in retrospect and at a distance.
Far from carrying the prophetic spirit of Kushner’s earlier work into the twenty-first century, The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide sends it into reverse, leapfrogging back over the sixties and seventies into an era when the Great American Play was an idea to be taken seriously. This is a harsh accusation to level at the creator of Angels in America and the writer of “A Socialism of the Skin,” and it’s possible that I have failed to grasp Kushner’s intentions, but this was the play I saw: a serious, almost unbelievably sincere effort at patriarchal, “straight” hagiography, the identification of a movement and an idea with the bitter and desiccated man (men) who spent one generation trying, and failing, to carry it out.
“You can’t wait around for a theory,” Louis says in the epilogue to Angels in America. “The sprawl of life, the weird …
Belize: Maybe the sheer size of the terrain.
Louis: It’s all too much to be encompassed by a single theory now.
Belize: The world is faster than the mind.
Louis: That’s what politics is. The world moving ahead. And only in politics does the miraculous occur.
Belize: But that’s a theory.
Hannah: You need an idea of the world to go out into the world. But it’s the going into that makes the idea. You can’t wait for a theory, but you have to have a theory.
One of the small miracles that the Occupy movement has brought about over the past three months has been the transformation of academic Marxism into living practice, into facts on the ground. In a speech delivered via the human microphone at Zuccotti Park on October 9, Slavoj Žižek distilled decades of philosophy into a single paragraph:
Communism failed absolutely, but the problems of the commons are here. They are telling you we are not American here. But the conservative fundamentalists who claim they really are American have to be reminded of something: What is Christianity? It’s the holy spirit. What is the holy spirit? It’s an egalitarian community of believers who are linked by love for each other, and who only have their own freedom and responsibility to do it. In this sense, the holy spirit is here now. And down there on Wall Street there are pagans who are worshipping blasphemous idols. So all we need is patience. The only thing I’m afraid of is that we will someday just go home and then we will meet once a year, drinking beer, and nostalgically remembering “what a nice time we had here.”
Promise yourselves that this will not be the case. We know that people often desire something but do not really want it. Don’t be afraid to really want what you desire.
How else can we describe this statement than as a kind of inoculation against mourning, as a warning: don’t become your parents, don’t give in to nostalgia, don’t anticipate the end of what has barely begun? While I was volunteering at Zuccotti Park one day in early October, the woman coordinating the sanitation committee showed me a handmade cigarette lighter someone had given her with the Occupy logo inscribed on it. “I better keep this,” she said, “for the historical record.” We are all hyperaware of history, of documenting ourselves, proving we existed. When we ask, “What is to come?” Derrida says in Specters of Marx, the question is both “turned toward the future” and “proceeding from the future.” And as of this moment, in early March of 2012, it’s not difficult to sense a certain undertow of impatience in media coverage of the Occupy movement, as if certain commentators and writers can’t wait to place it in chronological brackets: the Populist Uprising of Fall 2011.
In their critique of “feudal socialism,” Marx and Engels lamented that the aristocratic writers of two centuries ago had turned socialism into a luxury, a nostalgic fable, “half lamentation, half lampoon; half echo of the past, half menace of the future.” One could say that The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide has fallen into that trap. That is, in Freudian terms, not mourning — which always has to come to an end — but melancholia: an endless, paralyzing repetition of past traumas, in which the past altogether eclipses the present. But it’s much more interesting, and important, to consider the living promise of the Kushner who promised us that “it’s the going into that makes the idea,” who describes socialism as “the restitution of the joy of living.” And to then ask: where will the next prophetic voice come from? And what kind of work of art, at this moment, could carry us over the barricades into the future?
Jess Row is an American short story writer. His books include The Train to Lo Wu (2005) and Nobody Ever Gets Lost (2010).
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