Generosity in the 20s

So we all enter a new decade. I haven’t written recently, in part because of enjoying the holidays, and in part because I’ve been working hard to assimilate Simon Critchley and Jameson Webster’s The Hamlet Doctrine (now reissued as Stay Illusion). I finally read this book just as my article “‘Who’s There?’ A Vulnerable Reading of Hamlet” appears in Literature and Medicine (37.2, Fall 2019, 396-419, currently online). If I’d read Critchley and Jameson earlier (the book appeared just as I submitted the manuscript), I would have written a different article. Which may be what makes Hamlet perennial: more than maybe any story, it never stops opening into different understandings. C&J read Hamlet very differently from Harold Bloom, but they left me thinking that Bloom’s title gets the point of it: Poem Unlimited. But that’s an apology and update, not what I want to write about today.

Everybody writes an op-ed on what to expect in the coming decade. I’m trying to hold together two back-pages stories that have been in my newspapers during the last month and one recent experience. The first news story was about the city of Vancouver levying a 12% increase in property tax, with most of the money going to infrastructure upgrades in anticipation of weather emergencies. Especially increasing storm sewer capacity. Not dramatic, until you need it, which I believe they’re correct in assuming they will. That, to me, exemplifies good government. Second, on my first visit of the new year to my doctor’s office, I was offered a petition to sign; it will be forwarded to the Alberta Medical Association, to present to the provincial government. The details are complicated and will change anyway, but the bottom line is that the Province wants to cut billings in primary care by 30%, at least as their opening bargaining position. So maybe they’ll eventually settle for a 15% cut. Whatever, it’s a lot of clinical time, and it’s indicative of social care budgets in the coming decade. The third story gets at what the Province is more worried about, which are “orphan wells”. These are oil wells of various sizes that have been abandoned by the companies that drilled them. Many of these companies are no longer in business. The wells are leeching toxicity into the ground; they need cleaning up. The bill is one of those unthinkable amounts of money. Allowing this situation to have happened exemplifies bad government. But the bill is coming due. Nobody wants to run for office on the slogan of making Alberta more toxic again, but it is becoming more toxic.

Welcome to the 2020s, and I’m sure each reader, wherever you are, has your equivalent local stories; well, maybe a few live in the more privileged countries that still escape having equivalent stories. It’s hard to imagine that the 2020s are going to be like the “roaring” 1920s; more like what Albertans call the dirty thirties. I keep thinking of the Alberta songwriter Ian Tyson’s line, “The good times now are gone.” I think about the question so many editorialists and commentators have asked in the recent years: how to avoid despair?

That takes me back to Simon Critchley, but this time to his earlier book, Infinitely Demanding. Critchley begins with how the 19th century framed its despair, which was Nietzsche’s question of how to avoid nihilism. Critchley divides the problem of nihilism into two responses: passive and active. Active nihilism is expressed in acts of terror, in which I’d now include the apparent acceptance of governments carrying out extra-judicial assassinations with full acknowledgment. “Rather than acting in the world and trying to transform it, the passive nihilist,” Critchley writes, “focuses on himself and his projects for perfecting himself” (p. 4). Critchley elaborates a list of such projects, and I wonder whether my project of vulnerable reading belongs in that list. Of course the passive nihilist doesn’t accept the dichotomy of changing the world or perfecting oneself; instead, the latter is understood as necessary, to save the former from becoming the forms of violence that do change the world, but for the worse. I emphasize this is only the bare beginning of the more complex argument Critchley proceeds to develop–I plan to engage that argument elsewhere.

The perpetual risk of vulnerable reading is that it can become a project of passive nihilism, retreating from the need to effect good governance in the face of overwhelming demand, due in large part to past acts of collective imprudence. Blame should be apportioned for that imprudence, but blaming won’t clean up the orphan wells. Neither will reading Shakespeare.

But perhaps in reading Shakespeare, and others, we can find ways to live in despairing times without either the violences of active nihilism or the withdrawal of passive nihilism. By living with his stories, we can find new ways to tell our story so as to make it habitable. At least that seems a reasonable goal for those of us who are too old to dig storm sewers. In our present crisis of how to avoid nihilism, vulnerable reading is not a project of self perfection. Rather, it’s the work of group reincorporation, which may be what theatre has always been about. Changing the world may need to begin with a firm recognition that only the outward manifestation of our problems is new. We need respite from the present in order to return to it, and an active form of respite is seeing ourselves reflected in old stories. The good times have always been fleeting and poorly distributed. Looking back can be one form of moving on.

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