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Seeing Through Hypocrisy

By (August 1, 2017) No Comment

By Elfriede Jelinek
Seagull, 2017

Elfriede Jelinek sits in her home and watches TV. She rarely goes outside, and has agreed to only a handful of interviews over the past decade. For much of her life, as her literary fame has expanded so too have the anxious disorders that keep her confined to her two-story home in Vienna. An entrenched agoraphobe, she was unable to personally accept the 2004 Nobel Prize in Literature; instead, she recorded a video message, which was played at the ceremony.

In counterpoint to these hermetic tendencies, her recent work has focused on current events and the larger socio-political conundrums that arise from them. Her play Faust/In and Out shoves Goethean leitmotifs up against the figure of Josef Fritzl, who, it was discovered in 2008, had locked his daughter in a basement for twenty-four years and fathered seven children with her. The Silent Maiden, which premiered in 2015, reinterprets the purgatorially ongoing trial of Beate Zschäpe, a leader of a Neo-Nazi terror group responsible for murdering, at the lowest count, ten people.

Charges, subtitled (The Supplicants), is a reaction to the European refugee crisis. It draws from an episode in 2012 in which a group of refugees from Afghanistan and Pakistan occupied Vienna’s Votiv-Kirche, a church on the city’s historic Ringstrasse. This display occurred at the same time that the Austrian-Canadian businessman Frank Stronach paid for the naturalization of Boris Yeltsin’s daughter Tatyana Yumesheva in return for Russian financial backing for the purchase of a Viennese automobile plant.

But these real-world affairs are, frankly, beside the point. Though Charges is, in effect, a dramatic retelling of these events, in Jelinek’s version the details have been flensed away and the actual figures involved converted into archetypes. Like a true Brechtian, Jelinek seeks to deny her audiences clear connection, or identification, with her characters, in the hopes of forcing a reexamination of the mythic narratives modern society tells about itself. Curious anecdotes from the real world are diluted, converted into mythic bones, and frequently studded with motifs from canonical texts in order to draw out universal themes. (Charges consciously adopts the language and concerns of Aeschylus’s The Suppliants, for instance.) It is not in the exploration of discrete selves but rather through contradiction and hypocrisy, in the spaces elided by cross-purposed exchanges, that her art finds its purpose and power.

Charges is a performance text. On the stage, it would be divvied up among a set of nebulous performers. On the page, however, its stream of recitation, nearly unbroken by paragraphing, reads like the pearly expectoration of a chorus of ghosts. The speakers—though this label is something Jelinek complicates endlessly—are the eponymous “charges” and “supplicants,” a group of refugees trapped in bureaucratic stasis in a vaguely German city. In a fractious narration they recount their pasts and describe their current travails, variously beseeching, berating, and begging. Their hurly-burly, polyphonic plaint is equal parts memory and critique, recalling the desolation they left behind while rarely failing to insert a sidelong jab at the injustices that still dog them:

We fled, not convicted by any court in the world, convicted by all, there and here. All things knowable about our lives are gone, choked beneath a layer of appearances, nothing is an object of knowledge anymore, there is no more. No more need to grasp anything.

Adopting the voices of refugees—presuming to speak for them, as them—may seem like an ethically dicey endeavor, but a few lines into Charges it becomes clear that Jelinek isn’t really attempting to write from their perspective at all. By and large, Jelinek’s recent plays tend to forgo the common conception of dialogue. In its place, she utilizes what she calls “language planes,” dense amalgams of prose that shift between speakers and incorporate the argots of diverse traditions: popular bon mots, advertisements, brochures, news headlines, philosophy, literature. The resulting verbal pastiche, necessarily unstable, is held together by turns of phrase and the globby adhesive of extensive punning. When Jelinek’s refugees contemplate their entry into a new society, for instance, their plea combines soccer puns with the language of government integration guidelines, ending with a bleak inversion of the jargon of environmentalism:

…we want to be a part of this society, yes!, exactly!, we want to be cordially invited, and we most definitely will not think it’s just for kicks…A kick-off is what we need, if not this one, no, but with a ball, otherwise we stand still, we get stuck, we want to stand for your values, absolutely, in the workplace, in school, in vocational schools and in the family, which I no longer have, they are all dead, we have videos of two of them as they were beheaded, we’d love to stand up for your values wherever you like, for we know you wouldn’t behead anyone, you wouldn’t behead us or anyone else, except if someone’s coming on to you the wrong way, but then it must have gone really wrong, because that’s a lot of work, that’s a tall order, but in the end it’s a success, for no one can live without a head, that’s a sustainable success and sustainability is important to you.

The mechanism of the plane is egalitarian: If Jelinek slips in a tinct of Heideggerian jargon—“if time is this tri-unified whole of presentness,” she has her refugees muse—the phrasing, now activated, can be taken over and repurposed by any of the plane’s other residents. The effect is unsettling, as the speakers undercut their own and others’ authority, co-opt phrasing and knowledge they could not possibly possess (refugees are ordinarily unlikely to go spouting off about how the “Nothing noths,” after all), and espouse opinions and emotions they would, in no real space, have. To the reader, Jelinek offers a pointedly false experience. An avid practitioner of the screed, she lends her skills and knowledge out to her characters, blowing up their opinions to Bernhardian proportions and attempting to discern, as under a stone, the ideologies and fears that lurk beneath.

The engine behind Charges is an adjuration to see, and subsequently, to comprehend. Only a few pages into the text, a voice cries out: “Please try to experience just some of the things you can never know! Please!” It’s not simply Jelinek speaking, here; the group of refugees also speaks the words, shares the plea. But how should one go about experiencing these things? The answer, as far as Jelinek is concerned, doesn’t lie in the direct representation of tragedy. The overrepresentation of crises in the modern news cycle—photographs of drowned children, videos of beheadings—is a target of sustained excoriation in Charges. Via the terrible unspooling of images on the television screen, the refugees are subjected to a perverted esse est percipi—it is their total appearance that denudes them of their being.

On one level, though, Charges does manage to capture some of the chaos and disorder embedded in the refugee experience. “No one there anymore, no one here, only me who is here and not there, but here, left with my memories, all dead, dead somewhere else, dead for sure,” a voice whispers: “I am the last one, a hard lot, I loudly lament it, I drew the saddest lot.” Jelinek’s words are often suffused with the futility of communication; seemingly pointless clarifications (“not there, but here”) embody the attempt to channel the ineffable pain of loss into the bureaucratic specificity, the clarified accounting, necessary to make one’s case for survival in a new land.

Ultimately, however, Jelinek isn’t trying to create real, empathy-provoking scenarios. Part of this restraint is dutiful; as an interview included with Charges makes clear, she’s aware of her uninvolved position, and the dangers of appropriating refugee voices. The other, and more significant part, derives from an in-built failure of perception: “We’ve said everything at least fifty times, give or take, yes, yes, I know, you can’t take anymore, though you haven’t heard anything yet. Again, we beg your pardon.” Seen and seen and seen again, images of suffering become so worn and slicked that empathy can find no holds.

What does existence become when one’s life depends on emitting a perpetual plea? What happens to a plea when it is repeated ad nauseam? Does its heart, its nature change? Intriguing as these questions are, Jelinek is more interested in why pleas are repeated. In a sense, the whole of Charges constitutes an inquiry into the ironies and intricacies of supplicating. Jelinek’s refugees, time and time again, are made to bend themselves to the petty, inane demands of an ultimately unsatisfiable system. (No surprise, then, that the text includes a wry alteration of Kafka’s words on hope: “There is a plan for everything, just not for us.”) And throughout all of their ordeals, the refugees do not even have the privilege of hypocrisy.

No one curls her tongue around hypocrisy with quite the same glee as Jelinek. It’s her weapon of choice, the lance she wields to impale false narratives and cleave duplicity in twain—and, in her analysis, it’s precisely the tool that is denied the refugee. Though a fine sense for hypocrisy rumbles beneath the refugees’ words—the line “yes, I know, you can’t take it anymore” seethes with a tamped-down rage—they are never allowed to decry it, much less point it out:

…our voice will be free of insolence, of falsehood, we will be calm, courteous, composed, and understandable, understandably so, but you will not understand, how could you, as you don’t even want to hear it, thus our voice will fall into a void, into weightlessness, our lot that weighs so heavily on us will suddenly be weightless, because it will fall into Nothingness, into a vacuum, into the absolute Nothing, where it will hover, where we will try to hang on, in the water, in the void, yes.

The Western auditor demands a cruel paradox. Pleas must be submitted, neatly packaged, in the prescribed and decorous form, even though it is precisely this form—a sugared coating on a bitter pill—that makes them most easy to ignore. The strains of conversion, along with the pains of shoehorning one’s prickly self into presentable molds, trickle below Jelinek’s sentences like a chilly brook.

Jelinek understands that the rules of fiction-making impose a similar truncation and standardization on the refugee experience. After all, the golden promise of literature—its particular strength, especially when it comes to the representation of crisis—would seem to be its ability to relate the needs of the downtrodden with a renewed and urgent sense of reality. But this gambit, deriving from a focus on individual existences—the elaboration of discrete tales of woe—sometimes presents its own flaws, as Jelinek understands. Depicting human suffering by focusing on individuals can be problematic in much the same way that accepting refugees on the grounds that they’re doctors and lawyers and scientists can be problematic. What of those who aren’t doctors or lawyers or scientists? Well, what of those whose sufferings haven’t been so exquisitely expressed? As Jelinek never tires of reminding us, suffering is not worthiness.

Because Jelinek’s dramatic texts never quite come to an end—because, when the words stop, the extra cloth is never trimmed away—she sometimes appends continuations to her original text. (Gita Honegger, the volume’s translator, refers to this tendency as characteristic of Jelinek’s “open dramaturgy,” a tic that allows her to respond to developments in the crisis originally limned.)

Coda, the first dramalette that accompanies Charges, is an uncomfortable read, not because the familiar unslinking of language once again robs the page of breathing space, but because in only twenty-six pages it manages to introduce, and then exemplify, the pitfalls of Jelinek’s language game.

The real-world crisis Coda centers on is the series of tragic sea-crossings made by refugees in shoddy, poorly fueled, typically rudderless vessels. As the text begins, Jelinek’s refugees have run out of diesel in the middle of the sea. Stalled in the glaring green immensity, they provide Jelinek an easy opportunity to roughly suture a few allusions into the scenario—Agamemnon, with his stalled war-fleet, is a softball; the sacrifice of Iphigenia is likewise mirrored when the refugees, out of mindless desperation, contemplate doing the same to a young girl from their midst; and references to Odysseus, storm-tossed, variously adrift and marooned, crop up sporadically.

The real problem arises when Jelinek turns once more to the news cycle and decides to plop in, as a counter-narrative, the Volkswagen emissions scandal of 2015. There are, to be sure, mildly pleasurable resonances to be eked out of the juxtaposition—the motif of fuel efficiency strikes a raw chord of irony; the slight threads connecting the stale unbreathability of air on the jam-packed vessels with the environmentally lethal ruse enacted by the Volkswagen Group are intriguing; and the twinned unloading of inferior products (leaky Bugs or leaky boats) unsettles slowly.

By and large, however, as Coda unrolls it becomes clear that these elements are too disparate, too distant from one another, that they in fact occupy—or at least should—separate spheres of concern. A language game is fine, but an intellectual game, given the subject matter, strikes one as crass at the most, and inappropriate at the least. When Jelinek’s refugees declare: “We are doing everything we are told to do, everyone except those cars on their wrong track, all doing exactly what they are told except it was the wrong thing,” the connection and transition lack the verve that Jelinek’s writing can summon when she’s dealt herself the proper cards.

The impression Coda gives is of an author who isn’t entirely sure how her own system works. The magic of the language plane sputters, and the talismans of Jelinek’s subjects, drawn together by mere rhetoric, cease to glow. Distance, as it turns out, is doubly the problem. In her own voice, Jelinek, homebound and watching the news, complains: “I can’t really see it clearly, I am sitting in a chair, looking at the photo of a poultry transporter and there’s a lot more on YouTube.” The power of the distanced gaze is supposed to rest in perspective, the ability to separate minor from major event, but Jelinek seems to have fallen victim to the relentless unspooling of news bulletins and images, which flatten crises and ascribe an equal share of tragedy to every pixel.

There are, to be sure, forced moments in Charges, but they’re never as disruptive as those in Coda. Part of this is a product of length; at eighty-two pages, Charges has ample space to develop its themes without claustrophobia setting in, whereas Coda, at only twenty-five pages, often feels rushed, its allusions too tightly packed. There is a striking difference, too, in the framing scenarios of the texts. When a money-slicked naturalization is set over against a procession of frustrated naturalizations in Charges, a sense of poignant hypocrisy seems to arise naturally from the pairing. The connection in Coda between an emissions scandal and the passages made by refugees in unsafe vessels, however, is significantly weaker, and relies on what, at least in Jelinek’s scheme, is a lesser rhetorical force: it is merely ironic, rather than truly hypocritical. In this absence, nothing sticks, and Jelinek’s pricks and jabs land weakly, if they land at all.

Ultimately, the language plane, given its aims, and the effects it should be able to consistently produce, is not a perfect device. The form is unwieldy, susceptible to overwriting. At times it seems to get the better of Jelinek, and leads her about by the nose. But for all its shortcomings, it does accomplish the subtle task of capturing hypocrisies that are never fully expressed within its weave. Beyond the chatter of the page and the scrupulously artificial game of plea and counterplea—so far beyond the text, in fact, that it seems the work of magic—a feeling arises.

There is little about the experiences depicted in Charges that feels real. Rather, the whole of the text seems to gesture at the reality of suffering, utilizing, as the locus of its argument, our gut. If we’re capable of feeling the dull discomfiting burn of hypocrisy, Jelinek suggests, then surely something undeniably real must be behind it, driving it. It’s in such moments of self-analysis, the precarious apparatus of the language plane rebounding back on the reader, that we see—see ourselves, and our faults, and the quiet unknown drives that give life and power to systems of injustice.

Bailey Trela is a writer living in Washington, D.C.