Slavoj Žižek on His Favourite Plays, Interview with Liza Thompson

Slavoj Žižek on His Favourite Plays, Interview with Liza Thompson

Can you tell us a little bit about why you’ve chosen each of these plays?

At first, the five plays look like a jumbled heap lacking any common feature—what could they have in common? The bitter end of the old Oedipus who cannot reconcile himself with his fate; Richard II’s descent into madness after he is deprived of royal prerogatives; the meaningless self-sacrifice of a woman married to a man she despises; the ruthless killing of a young Communist who has shown too much compassion; and the confused mumbling of an old senile Irish woman?

To each of these plays, one can easily substitute another piece by the same author which deserves much more our attention. For example, is the ethical fidelity of Antigone not much easier to identify with than the vicissitudes of the old Oedipus? Are the doubts and procrastinations of Hamlet not infinitely more interesting than the endless narcissistic complaints of Richard II? Does the terrible burden imposed on the heroine of Claudel’s Annunciation of Marie not touch us much more directly than Sygne’s eccentric act in Hostage? How can the minimalist staging of the Stalinist meanders in Measure Taken even compare with the wealthy texture of Brecht’s Galileo? And, last but not least, does the sheer wit of Waiting for Godot not immediately eclipse the rather boring monologue of Not I?

You’ve given us reasons not to read these plays! Is there something that pulls them together? A theme, perhaps?

I clearly see a feature they all share: they all push our subjective experience to its extreme, they all enact what Lacan calls “subjective destitution.” In every play, the hero is pushed beyond a certain limit, out of the domain in which rules of normal human existence apply; he or she finds him or herself in what Lacan called “between-the-two-deaths”: dead while still alive. Oedipus is thrown out of human community, wandering around as an excremental/sacred outcast with no place in any polis—he has seen too much. Richard II is gradually deprived of his royal symbolic identity and authority, reduced to a point of madness with nothing to rely on. Sygne de Coufontaine first sacrifices everything for a higher, Catholic, cause, and is then forced to sacrifice this cause itself, so that she finds herself in an existential void.

In a homologous way, Brecht’s anonymous hero has to sacrifice sacrifice itself, to disappear and to accept the disappearance of his very disappearance. Last but not least, the speaking mouth in Beckett is directly deprived of personality and reduced to a “partial object,” something like the smile of the Cheshire Cat which survives the cat’s disappearance. The underlying premise of all five plays is that this extreme limit-position is not just a point of total annihilation or destruction but, simultaneously, the unique chance of a new beginning.

[…]

Plato’s reputation suffers because of his claim that poets should be thrown out of the city—a rather sensible advice, judging from the post-Yugoslav experience, where ethnic cleansing was prepared by poets’ dangerous dreams. True, Milosevic manipulated nationalist passions—but it was the poets who delivered him the stuff which lend itself to manipulation. They—the sincere poets, not the corrupted politicians—were at the origin of it all. To put it in a brutal way, behind every ethnic cleansing there is some poet.

[…]

Are the five plays you’ve selected also ‘ethico-political exercises’? Or are they about ‘never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity’?

The five plays are precisely not about missing an opportunity, the ‘suicidal’ gesture with which they close is an authentic act—in contrast to Sophocles’s Antigone which, I think, is about a missed opportunity, and the point of my rewriting is to reintroduce into it the dimension of authentic act, with direct relevance to our contemporary predicament.

We live in times of pseudo-conflicts: Brexit[’s] yes or no; in Turkey, military or Erdogan; in Eastern Europe, new Baltic-Polish-Ukrainian fundamentalists or Putin; in Syria, Assad or Isis…

There is no worse choice, both choices are worse, to paraphrase Stalin

In all these cases, although one might slightly prefer one side to the other, the ultimate stance should be the one of indifferences: there is no worse choice, both choices are worse, to paraphrase Stalin. And it is here, at this formal level, that I see the ethico-political relevance of my rewriting of Antigone. The conflict between Antigone and Creon is for me also a pseudo-conflict: the only way to resolve it is to change the terrain and introduce another dimension (the intervention of the Chorus in my version). Exactly the same thing is needed in today’s struggle for emancipation: to move beyond our pseudo-conflicts—liberal permissiveness versus religious fundamentalism, et cetera—and to draw the coordinates of the true conflict which is, to put it bluntly, today’s form of what once was called class struggle. Who will be today’s Chorus? Refugees? Unemployed? A Chorus that I have in mind already appeared in what I consider the theatrical event of the 20th century, the Chereau-Boulez staging of Wagner’s Ring in Bayreuth [1976-1980]. What remains on stage after the twilight is the human crowd silently observing the cataclysmic event, a crowd which is left staring into the spectators when the music ends. To quote Chereau:

The Redemption motif is a message delivered to the entire world, but like all pythonesses, the orchestra is unclear and there are several ways of interpreting its message… Doesn’t one hear it, shouldn’t one hear it, with mistrust and anxiety, a mistrust which would match the boundless hope which this humanity nurses and which has always been at stake, silently and invisibly, in the atrocious battles which have torn human beings apart throughout the Ring? The gods have lived, the values of their world must be reconstructed and reinvented. Men are there as if on the edge of a cliff—they listen, tensely, to the oracle which rumbles from the depths of the earth.

There is no guarantee of redemption here: redemption is merely given as possible. Everything rests on them, the anonymous Chorus, without any guarantee in God or any other figure of the big Other—it is up to them to act like the Holy Spirit, practicing agape, or political love, as Terry Eagleton proposed to translate this term.

[Extract. Appeared in Five Books on October 3rd 2016.]


Slavoj Žižek

Slavoj Žižek is a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, and a senior researcher at the Institute for Humanities, Birkbeck College, University of London. He has also been a visiting professor at more than 10 universities around the world. Žižek is the author of many books; his latest are Against the Double Blackmail and Disparities.

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