Game of Thrones: The Power of Weakness

by Sam Buntz

[Note: If you’ve never watched the show, but plan on doing it, this has spoilers. If you’re more or less up-to-date, yet haven’t seen the last few episodes, it doesn’t give anything away].

On Game of Thrones, penile amputation has the perhaps unanticipated effect of making characters into better men. (Or is that actually the expected effect?)  Theon Greyjoy begins his career as a raider and murderer, specializing in pillage and the betrayal of close family friends; after prolonged torture and the severance of his male member, he lands, rather flat-footedly, on the Good Guys’ team. Redemption is possible on the continent of Westeros—but (to understate it) at a price. In the words of Yeats, “Nothing can be sole or whole / That has not been rent.”

Varys, professional whisperer in corridors, underwent the same thoroughly unpleasant ordeal as a child, making him into a eunuch, and hence, into another one of the Good Guys—though an infinitely more articulate one than Theon. Withdrawn from the field of sexual combat, he’s able to see situations with clarity and empathy; he’s grown rigorously detached, thanks to that initial, cruelly physical detachment.  Again, Tyrion Lannister has a brush with the fate-worse-than-death: he momentarily falls into the hands of slave traders who threaten to divide him from his better half, but decide to wait until they can find a “cock merchant.”

Indeed, it’s difficult to become a genuinely nice person on this show without having endured a physically or psychologically scarring trauma. The heroes are all maligned and beset outsiders—Tyrion is a dwarf, John Snow is of illegitimate birth, Daenerys is initially a powerless outcast forced into an unwanted marriage, Sansa and Arya undergo their own endless gauntlets of humiliation and pain… Even Jaime Lannister became relatively more sympathetic after he lost his hand.  Cersei, the most repugnant villain of all (well, next to Ramsay Bolton… God, this show has a huge cast…) has just undergone her own Walk of Shame, though I’m not sure it will have any serious long-term effect on her personality.

Conversely, Good Guys who haven’t been sufficiently traumatized or maimed fail to survive: Ned Stark is decapitated, and Catherine Stark and Robb Stark get murdered at the “Red Wedding.” Suffering creates depth, and the hoary adage, “That which does not kill you, only makes you stronger,” is proved over and over again on Thrones. By contrast, the rich and powerful are surrounded by an aura of intimidating earthly glory—yet, ultimately, they’re just a bunch of walking appetites. Tywin Lannister, Cersei, Ramsay… all are (or, in Tywin’s case, were) evil in complicated ways, but remain fundamentally shallow. The only characters who can conceive of a situation in total, who have minds that engage with subjects more absorbing than predatory self-interest, are people like John Snow. Snow senses the crucial imperative of uniting with the Wildlings in order to defeat the White Walkers, because his woundedness and outsider status allow him to see the world with awakened eyes.

(As a side-note: when you type words like “Wildlings” and “White Walkers” in rapid succession, you realize how, despite it’s widespread popularity, Game of Thrones is still fundamentally an intense nerd-fest. Yet, it’s escaped the fate of catering exclusively to the Comic Con crowd. Credit, of course, copious nudity for the show’s—ahem—enlargement of its viewership. According to the New York Times, even President Obama watches it—though the same article described Thrones as a brutal recreation of “the wars of medieval Europe,” which it is not.)

Beyond the inducements of titillating brothel sequences, the show’s storytelling strength comes from this narrative of weakness as a paradoxical source of strength. The more terrible things befall Tyrion and Snow and Sansa, the greater the ultimate payoff will be when and if they finally succeed.  At this point, we watch the show expecting to see our hopes for the heroes get thwarted: the record of misfortunes lengthens and lengthens, making the feat of finally steering the survivors to a reasonably satisfying denouement all the more daunting and therefore exciting to anticipate. We quite naturally want to see the apparently weak, yet more resourceful people triumph, but we don’t want this to be easy. We want the resilience they’ve gained to matter, to help drive the story to some sort of happy-ish ending in which the Good Guys finally gain power.

Yet the course of the show strongly implies that power itself may be the problem. When Daenerys takes over Mereen (and, yes—these damned fantasy names do make one feel slightly ridiculous as one types one’s semi-earnest think-piece) she discovers that wielding power is full of dialectical contradictions: if you reign with too much justice and not enough mercy, you spark discontent, and if you reign with laxity, you fall prey to the designs of the craftily unjust.

That’s why The Lord of the Rings has the greatest ending of any fantasy novel. As W.H. Auden observed, the conclusion to the Rings trilogy beats out both the Book of Revelation and Paradise Lost in its depiction of how ultimate Good ought to defeat ultimate Evil. In Revelation and Milton’s work, God crushes Satan through superior firepower—which is a little disconcerting, since it implies that the difference between Deity and Devil is not so much a moral difference, as it is a matter of having the biggest guns on your side. The Lord of the Rings gives us epic battle sequences as well, but they’re ultimately a sideshow to the main event: the destruction of the One Ring in Mount Doom. The Good Guys, Frodo and Sam, defeat Evil by refusing to meet it on its own terms—instead of using the ring to enhance their own power (transforming humble Hobbits into future Saurons, or, less magnificently, future Gollums), they renounce it, and destroy the very object that embodies power.

If the world worked differently, this is what we wish the Good Guys could always do—and it’s what some universally admired heroes (Gandhi, King, Mandela) actually, in a sense, did. They used apparent powerlessness as a paradoxical source of power: their voices were amplified by imprisonment and persecution, not stifled. But, unfortunately, these tactics don’t work in all circumstances: if Gandhi had tried to resist Hitler with non-violence, he would’ve been killed before he’d gained any followers.  The continent of Westeros seems like another place where violence can’t be renounced in order to purchase victory.  It’s a less High Romantic locale than Middle Earth, and the possibility of a fully harmonious conclusion is a bit uncertain.

Perhaps the Good Guys will manage to balance pragmatism and idealism, get their hands on some superior firepower (dragons) and learn how to use it in an effective way, winning single-payer healthcare and free-tuition at public universities for the masses of Westeros. But maybe, given all the mysterious stuff going down with Bran and the Children of the Forest (again, the mild sense of ridiculousness intrudes as I type…) the possibility of pulling the same sort of trick as Frodo and Sam will come to light. It’s possible that, in the words of Dylan, they’ll be able to miraculously, “win the war after losing every battle.”

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Male Humiliation

by Sam Buntz

George Orwell once claimed that 75% of waking male life was comprised of humiliation. This was a fair, perhaps even conservative estimate. Now, I’m not an expert, and can’t claim to know much about the general rate of female humiliation—can’t say whether the bucket of pig’s blood dumped on Carrie’s head is at all representative. But I do think that male humiliation is marked by its frequently public and dramatic nature. It’s an event.

I can offer an example from my own life. Fortunately, this isn’t even remotely tear-jerking and not in any way a plea for sympathy. It’s definitely pathetic, but hopefully in a more or less comic mode; it’s not nearly the most humiliating experience I’ve ever had, for one thing, and I’m not engaging in any emotional striptease by relating it. This isn’t some sob story I wish I could tell Oprah. But I think it’s archetypal enough to offer admirable, illustrative service.

In tenth grade, I joined the track team—or, I guess, to be technical, the field team. I was supposed to be learning how to throw the shot-put and the discus, but I was a pretty low-priority team member, and never officially competed in either event. I was on the B team, possibly the C team of shot-put-ers and discus-ers. At one point, my parents bought me a shot-put and a discus so I could practice at home, but the discus mysteriously vanished after I left it outside. Given that we were living in a fairly rural area, I have no idea what happened to it. Coyotes got it.

Anyway, we were on the bus one afternoon, headed to a meet. The track coach turned around in his seat—I was right behind him—and asked me what I was going to be doing today, and I admitted that I had no idea. I definitely hadn’t been singled out to participate in shot-put or discus. He made it clear that I needed to do something, and volunteered me for the 800m. I was immediately apprehensive, but had to agree, despite having engaged in no running since I joined the team.

I got lapped—severely. Everyone else finished and I still needed to make one more circuit around the track (you only have to run around twice; that’s how the 800m works). The entire girls’ track team actually cheered me on as I made my final lonely, out-of-shape lap—which was the worst part, of course. And then at the next meet, I had to do it again, and the exact same thing happened, with the girls’ team offering their doubtful cries of “You can do it!” once more. It was even worse with repetition…. But my mom knew the track coach, and actually asked him, politely, not to make me participate in the 800m again—only the shot and disk if I ever got good enough. None of the other non-competing shot and disk scrubs were being forced to do anything, ever, after all… He obliged. (Having your mom bail you out of problems is another form of humiliation too, in a way, though not a public way, thank God. But I was just grateful).

I distrust any guy who doesn’t have a battery of similar experiences. I’m not sure to what extent you can really grasp the horror of existence without a hundred or so dips into the font of undiluted humiliation. Some people are naturally empathetic, but most of us—especially me—require a series of shocks in order to awaken or re-awaken the instinct. In studying weird religious movements, I’ve heard more than one cult leader (Manson, for instance) claim that panic is the purest experience, since it provokes one into a state of sharp awareness. This is a thoroughly debauched parody of mysticism and enlightenment, obviously—but I would say that, applied to humiliation (closely related to panic) it has a certain truth to it. We need to be successively pricked (or flogged) into consciousness. A cult leader is an unnecessary and completely faulty aid, though, since existence itself is sufficient to do the trick.

When I was making that last lap, I could perceive myself from a second vantage point. In T.S. Eliot’s words, “I assumed a double part.” Mercifully, life let me split my consciousness and function not just as the person being humiliated, but as a spectator to my own defeat. So, I wasn’t wholly present in my gauntlet—I also could look at my experience and myself impersonally, staring from the stands and curiously considering the isolated person presently being ground down by fate and casual human indifference. Not to lavish myself with praise, but I think this was an accomplishment. It was an infinitely more vital and significant experience than winning the 800m would’ve been, and being a bashful adherent of magical thinking, I’m sure that’s why it happened. In retrospect, I’m completely glad that it did, along with all the other, hopefully forever-unwritten humiliations. (At least, I’m glad in theory).

Because of the accumulation of these various shocks, I think I can look at people making fools of themselves, or getting stoned and shamed, with a look of real empathy. What they’re going through might be way worse than anything I’ve experienced—they might be an Iraqi family surrounded by ISIS troops on Mount Sinjar—but I think my deep sense of its terrible loneliness and wrongness is pretty genuine. I think I really can, to some degree, understand what a eunuch or someone who’s just received a pink slip, and needs to march out to the parking lot with their stapler and “World’s Best Aunt” coffee mug in a cardboard box, might be going through. At least, I want to understand, which is more than half the battle. And the battle is to ameliorate human suffering—at least, the forms of suffering that are completely pointless and wasteful. (There are necessary and unnecessary forms of suffering). However, as a cautionary note, successive experiences of humiliation can breed the character of a Hitler as well as a Gandhi. It can sting one into consciousness, or drive one in the direction of consuming resentment.

If human indifference—as much as human malice—can cause humiliation, it can also offer a mild balm. You take consolation in the fact that your public humiliations probably don’t stick with people as much as they stick with you. Of course, some malicious people might latch on to them, especially when you’re in school—but it’ll fade from their memories too, most likely. Our peak moments and profound defeats always mean far less to other people, who are mainly consumed by their own problems, than they do to us. You might be nervous when giving a speech at a charity pancake breakfast, concerned about how your delicate nuances of sound and sense will be received, while most of your auditors are just hungry and waiting for you to shut up so the flapjacks can arrive. Only in rare cases will these humiliations really come to define you in other people’s minds for more than a decade to come (like Howard Dean yelling “Yaaaaaaahhh!”).

Summing things up, W.H. Auden wrote a great poem about the way suffering happens, as observed in Brueghel’s painting of the fall of Icarus:

“…everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.”

Thomas Hardy’s God

by Sam Buntz

If we lack a hope that transcends the vagaries of time and space, the best we can do is not to hope: to never expect much. That was the wisdom of Thomas Hardy, later echoed by poetic descendants, like Philip Larkin. Yet, while Hardy is a poet who advises stoic endurance in the face of the world’s “neutral tinted haps and such,” he goes further than his disciples. While Larkin also advises endurance, he is, compared to Hardy, somewhat spiritless: he has no appetite for a cosmic quest, and disdains poetic mythmaking for that reason. Despite being shorn of orthodox belief by the revelations of Darwin, Hardy actually did have the urge for such metaphysical exploration. Unlike some of his followers, he doesn’t cease to think after receiving an initial impression—he pursues, he speculates, he wonders. As John Irving put it in A Prayer for Owen Meany, Hardy was “almost religious.” He had the temperament and the wonder, but he lacked hope for an eternal world, for final bliss. He knows all about time, but is uncertain regarding eternity.

A great example of Hardy’s philosophical mind in action is the poem, “The Masked Face.” The speaker finds himself in “a great surging space,” with no “firm-fix’d floor” and locked doors at both ends. A mysterious masked face arrives to tell him that this place is “Life.” When the speaker complains about the locked doors and the confusion reigning in this weird locale, the mask-veiled being replies:

“There once complained a goosequill pen
To the scribe of the Infinite
Of the words it had to write
Because they were past its ken.”

And in an untitled poem, labeled a “fragment” (though it seems complete enough), Hardy talks about another metaphysical trip. The speaker visits the Dead—all who have ever lived—where they wait in a hidden gallery. He asks them what they’re waiting for, and they reply that they’re waiting for “God” or “the Will, or Force, or Laws” or “vaguely…the Ultimate Cause” to finally “know it.” To the speaker’s repeated questioning they explain that they’re waiting for God to “know how things have been going on earth and below it: /  It is clear he must know some day…” They continue:

“‘Since he made us humble pioneers
Of himself in consciousness of Life’s tears,
It needs no mighty prophecy
To tell that what he could mindlessly show
His creatures, he himself will know.

“‘By some still close-cowled mystery
We have reached feeling faster than he,
But he will overtake us anon,
If the world goes on.’”

In his work, Hardy took inspiration from Arthur Schopenhauer, the German philosopher who viewed the “Will to Live” as fundamentally pointless, even malign: we are all its helpless puppets, and our glory lies in renunciation and asceticism. But despite Schopenhauer’s profound influence, Hardy, in these particular poems, refuses to see life as a meaningless slog. He doesn’t consider the onward march of the Will as so much sound and fury. Rather, Life is a process that may, in fact, lead to a desirable conclusion, and there may be some greater design behind it—though not one consciously directed by the Biblical God. Rather, God is Life (or the Will) in Hardy’s estimation—a process leading towards some final comprehension. (This is very similar to George Bernard Shaw’s philosophy, as well). We have only to play our part in it, without complaint or accusation. Yet, at the same time, this shred of hope for the future—if it really is hope—is slathered with qualifications. God or the Will or the Ultimate Cause will reach some great reckoning “if the world goes on”, says Hardy (italics added). The sense of existential nausea, of reeling in immensities of time and space with no point of orientation, never really dissipates.

There is a certain tendency in some British artists—writers, playwrights, poets, film-makers—to indulge in misery for its own sake. “British Miserablism” is actually a school and a style. In a warped way, these artists look back to Hardy—but they fail to recognize that a tragedy is not a tragedy if there never was any chance for things to go right. If it’s always been 3 A.M. in the soul, and has never been high noon, where’s the loss? But, by situating his poetry in this greater semi-mythical context—speculating on the ultimate purpose of God or the Will, however vague it may be—Hardy lets us see genuine tragedy in the human condition. Things could be going right—we might’ve been born in the hidden room lying at the further end of that shifting, bewildering space called “Life,” discussed in “The Masked Face”. We might’ve lived to see the unveiling of the Mask, to note whether some more or less benevolent countenance lay behind. But we’re born in the middle of the process, unable to understand the purpose of the Infinite in authoring our sufferings—and our joys, for that matter (Hardy, in “Hap”, imagines higher powers, randomly scattering bliss and pain around his “pilgrimage”). That’s our real tragedy, in Hardy’s view. We can but serve and die, doing a little good in the process, and hoping merely that someone else will finally learn what it was all about.

But Hardy didn’t just influence poets like Larkin—poignantly unhappy, while dedicated to muddling through. He also influenced W.H. Auden, a writer who knew all that Hardy knew about time, but also knew much more about Eternity. Auden called Hardy an ideal mentor for the inspiring poet—since Hardy used so many verse forms and meters, and also provides numerous instructive examples of a great poet’s lesser and awkwardly shaped efforts—and understood the negative lessons Hardy taught about time and death. As Auden writes in “As I Walked Out One Evening,” “The glacier knocks in the cupboard / And the desert sighs in the bed / And a crack in the tea-cup opens / A lane to the land of the dead.” But Auden also affirms a hope transcending time and space—which Hardy never really could, since the vague hope he does have is ultimately bound by time, occurring at the end of a historical process. In “In Praise of Limestone” Auden imagines a higher world where “The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from / Having nothing to hide.” This is a far more specific hope than Hardy’s desire to see the Will somehow become aware of what’s happening on earth. Auden has absorbed Hardy’s teachings, while daring to leap beyond them—reaching, as a poet, the same kind of final reckoning that Hardy intuited but did not dare to attain.

The Healing Balm of Indifference

by Sam Buntz

There’s something about lazy, morally unallied characters that resonates with everyone (or, almost everyone). It’s refreshing to see one’s secret, inner aimlessness and lack of ideals dramatized—it awakens real sympathy. This is a definite paradox: we can care intensely about characters who don’t care at all. The classic example is Shakespeare’s Falstaff: perpetually mirthful, but devoid of moral direction. He’s endlessly creative, but he doesn’t use his creativity for a greater ethical purpose.  It’s a toy for his own amusement (and that of others). Ibsen’s Peer Gynt is another good example: he compares himself to an onion, consisting of layers without an inner core, and continually acts like a cad while winning the reader or playgoer’s loyalty.  Homer Simpson, the frat guys from Animal House, and any number of illustrious slackers are all fine, present-day instances of the same phenomenon.

A hollow person in a serious situation seems reprehensible—but in a situation with ethically low stakes, a hollow person can become a magnet for our affection. Perhaps this is because, before we side with good or evil, we all feel a similar sense of hollowness, of yet un-polarized being. We sympathize with these characters because we sympathize with ourselves. There’s a kind of crystalline innocence/ignorance to this personality—he isn’t bad, but he’s also unhampered by dogmatic notions of goodness. He is what theologians sometimes refer to as the “natural man”—a child of nature, and therefore innocent, but also corrupt; innocently corrupt.   (Also, there are plenty of female examples of the same archetype—from life and art. Somehow, using “he or she” would’ve interrupted the flow of the last two sentences in a weird way).

Thomas Carlyle argued that, in life, we should journey from saying an “Eternal No” through a “Center of Indifference” to saying an “Eternal Yes.” In other words, we ought to proceed from being mindlessly destructive—kids crushing ants for fun—through the apathy and cynicism of adolescence, to the creative ideals of a fully realized adulthood. Obviously, many of us never make the full trek—and, in our own age, I would argue that making it to the “Center of Indifference” is actually a pretty big accomplishment. The members of ISIS and North Korea’s ruling clique clearly never made it there—they utter their “Eternal No” into the void.

But the valiantly indifferent are (at least, in our bad era) praiseworthy, if only because they haven’t regressed, haven’t ruined anything. They remain unsponsored and free—dwelling in possibility. (Purgatory has so much more room than hell… It’s pleasantly spacious, as it turns out). In a world rife with fanaticism, indifference is, as W.H. Auden said, “the least / We have to fear from man or beast.” I wouldn’t argue that not-giving-a-damn is a revolutionary act, or that we can’t do better than indifference—an Everlasting Yes is where we’re ultimately headed. But we’re so adept at doing worse—at being violently partial about any number of fleeting worries and cares—that indifference starts to seem like a counter-force as opposed to what it technically is, the absence of a position. A little lighthearted indifference goes a long way—in effect, it’s the real “chicken soup for the soul.”