Marina Warner on War and Pity

Last week Geoffrey Hill was at Wolfson College, sharing his thoughts on the legacy of war. This week it was Marina Warner’s turn.
Her title was War and Pity. The focus was on Greek tragedy, and how different its way of dealing with violence was from modern ‘apocalyptic’ cinema’s.
Euripides and others used legends of the Trojan War to refract current events, and these myths ‘opened up the ethical terrain’ for writers, allowing them to explore the morality of extreme circumstances, and to place characters under close moral scrutiny.
Through Hecuba we are asked to share the viewpoint of the defeated, and to feel the injustice of her fate – but then, as her extreme revenge carries her beyond the audience’s sympathy, we are invited to view her objectively. This heroine is not a role-model but an object of debate, and the play’s embittered and deliberately confused ending does not allow easy satisfactions.
Greek tragedy can deal with extreme situations effectively because it is formal, distanced. Characters are masked, actions are formal, and violence occurs off-stage. The focus is on the words and the ideas; feelings of intense sympathy are aroused, but moral judgement is invited; catharsis is made possible.
Marina Warner used Hamlet’s reaction to the Player’s speech about Hecuba to demonstrate the tragic effect. The language of the speech is bombastic, old-fashioned, stylised, but it has its effect on Hamlet by showing him the possibility of action, and the possibility of intense sympathy with another. The theatrical representation is imperfect, but Hamlet ‘fills in the gaps’ with his own experience of loss and fear, which is what any receptive audience does.
This was contrasted with the thrilling and ‘apocalyptic’ excess of modern cinema, which provides a spectacle in which we collude with violence – and offers no catharsis, but a ‘quasi-sexual shudder’ as we take pleasure in destruction. The surface realism does not allow the same sort of empathy that reading does, or tragedy; we really know that it cannot be true, so the whole thing becomes a game. In the question time, Marina Warner talked about teenage boys for whom violent films become a rite of passage; they prove their manliness by watching extreme horrors. She also linked cinematic horrors with the masochistic Catholics who dwell in lingering detail on the agonies of Christ (referring especially to the recent rather horrible exhibition of Spanish religious art at the National Gallery).
It was a good stimulating lecture, and I was minded to agree with her. I’ve spent the last few years reading war books, and those that dwell on horrors are often the least authentic. But I should have asked at question time – where does this leave Shakespeare? I went to see King Lear at Stratford a few months ago (Greg Hicks excellent as Lear). Before the scene of Gloucester’s blinding I felt myself tense, because I knew the scene was going to be horrible, but I also slipped into technical mode. How would they do the blinding? Who would be palming the little sachets of blood to create the gruesome effect? Anything you can urge against the realistic-yet-artificial horrors of modern cinema can be urged against Jacobean tragedy. Yet I wouldn’t want King Lear to be without the blinding scene.
Next week Ian Buruma will be speaking on the subject of War and Liberation, but I shan’t be there. I am going on holiday.

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