Vulnerability, At the Present Moment

If I had given this blog a title, it would be the vulnerable reader. Both those words need specification, but today I’m stuck on what it means to think of oneself or others as vulnerable. By now–March 30–I assume everyone being kind enough to read this is living with some level of dislocation, whether of work, relationships, living arrangements, provision of services…and a long list of ‘and so on’. Shakespeare’s plays all begin, and I actually think all is warranted here, with some dislocation that is both individual and collective. Sometimes one or more characters has incurred this dislocation themselves: Lear’s division of his kingdom or Romeo and Juliet falling in love. Others have dislocation apparently forced upon them: Viola in Twelfth Night gets shipwrecked; Rosalind in As You Like It and Hamlet both have to deal with dislocations caused by the older generation’s misbehaviour. And maybe the most interesting are characters among whom I’d place Shylock and Coriolanus (not usually conjoined in one sentence) who both act and are acted upon. Shylock and Coriolanus seem to me to fit perfectly the human condition as famously described by Karl Marx: each makes his own history, but neither does so in conditions of his own choosing. Here’s a Shakespearean zen koan: in Macbeth, are the three sisters (a.k.a. the witches) of his choosing? Say either and you’re doomed.

Thinking about these characters, maybe even thinking with them, we can see ourselves as vulnerable both to our circumstances and to our selves. And pace Epictetus, it is not so easy to separate what we can control from what we cannot. Living in a pandemic especially blurs that distinction. Living now can make a word like control seem crudely naive about the human condition. Control is an illusion, and most dangerous when we most need to exercise whatever control we can. On my account of things, none of us ever controls much of anything, and that’s the beginning of our vulnerability. We are vulnerable both to illusions of control and to despair at our lack of control.

Erving Goffman’s Stigma, which might now be receiving the most attention of any of his works, seems to me to understand vulnerability as the ultimate absence of control over how one’s self is understood, both by oneself and by others, and human attempts, sometimes heroic and sometimes comic, to control information about the self. So far as we can control some people’s access to some information about ourselves, we stave off vulnerability. But there’s always what Goffman calls discreditable information out there, and so we’re all vulnerable. It’s comic in the sense that it’s funny watching Buster Keaton racing downhill, trying to outrun the giant snowball behind him. What, exactly, do we find funny? What about ourselves are we laughing at?

The situations of Edgar and his father, Gloucester, in King Lear are both distinctly not funny. The former is falsely accused by his brother and on the run, living disguised as a madman, mortifying his flesh to embody the identity he must assume to survive. Gloucester has had his eyes gouged out by Regan and Cornwall. Then they fall in together, and that doesn’t strain my imagination. I wrote, a number of blogs ago, about how the critic Jan Kott imagines the stage image of Edgar telling his father that although the ground might feel flat, they are climbing a steep incline to cliffs from which Gloucester is determined to thrown himself, ending his miserable existence. Two figures on a flat stage, struggling up an imaginary hill, one hoping to end a life that has proven too vulnerable.

Although King Lear ends with Lear holding the dead body of Cordelia, for me the more immediate lesson for us is Edgar and Gloucester, learning to live with what they now know as their own vulnerability. I distrust the word resilience and try to use it only to discuss what it obscures. I prefer to think of Edgar and Gloucester gaining tragic knowledge: that what you can control can never be disentangled from what you cannot control, and you are always vulnerable. But you choose to persevere. Shakespeare’s works multiply variations on characters choosing to persevere through the dislocations that they have variously caused and had imposed upon them. I like best those endings that leave us in doubt how this will work out.

The big difference is that in Shakespeare’s worlds on the stage, we the audience know that there will, within a couple of hours, be at least the sense of an ending, and we project that knowledge onto the characters in the plays, at least I think we can’t avoid treating our expectation as their knowledge. The most immediate anxiety of the pandemic, more immediate I think than getting sick and dying, is not having any idea when it might end, or what an ending will look like. It’s not knowing whether we will see some people again or do some things again. It’s not knowing what version of life as we knew it might again be available to us, when. I recently read a review by James Shapiro, writing about a new book that places Shakespeare in times of recurring plague, which the book’s author argues is the ever present background of concern in the plays. Plague was a predictable but always unexpected aspect of life for a long time, as in centuries. Shakespeare’s plays are both respite and reckoning with plague. How do we, now, use them to live with the newly recognized vulnerabilities that the present moment makes palpable in our lives?

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