This Friday, Leyla Josephine will be returning to Edinburgh with her highly-acclaimed show, Hopeless. The Mumble managed to catch her for a wee blether & to see some of her poems
Hello Leyla, so where ya from & where ya at, geographically speaking?
I am originally from Glasgow spent most of my life there. I lived in Japan for a while and now I’m in Prestwick. I moved to be near the coast for some peace and quiet but it’s been a lot of commuting. I spend most of my time on the M77.
When did you first realise you were a poet?
I don’t know if I’ve ever really felt like a poet. There’s certainly not been a moment I can specifically think of. I think my work has always sat on the margins of performance, storytelling and poetry. I sometimes feel like a bit of a fraud when I call myself a poet. But I also believe that anything can be poetry, so when someone gave me the title I took it and ran with it.
Which poets inspired you at the beginning & who today?
I think in the beginning of liking words and rhythm I was more focussed on music and looking back some of my favourite musicians could definitely be considered poets like Jamie T, Ghostpoet and Alex Turner. At school I was obsessed with Liz Lockhead’s Medea. I try to look around me in the UK Spoken Word community for inspiration, Iona Lee, Sam Small, Liam McCormick and Lisa Luxx are some of my favourites. I have always been a fan of Kate Tempest, Hollie McNish. I love reading Ocean Vuong and David Ross Linklater. But I definitely look to people like Taylor Mac, Kieran Hurley, Julia Taudevin and Third Angel and who manage to so beautifully tie theatre and spoken word together. I think I’ve always been really lucky to have one foot in the door of both Spoken Word and Contemporary Theatre. I have seen so many brilliant performers and poets and I try to take inspiration from everywhere.
You’re quite the creative polymath; teaching drama, making theatre & writing poetry. Do all these artistic endeavors bleed into each other?
Definitely, usually I can’t really tell the difference between any of them. It’s just the framing of what you’re doing, all the creative processes are very similar. The blurring of the lines is what makes it the most interesting. My pamphlet isn’t a poetry book, it’s documentation of a theatre show which has poetry in it but does that make it a poetry book or maybe is it a script or because it’s true story is it a memoir? I find it fascinating when people try to name it because really I’m not sure either. I don’t know even if drama teacher is right because I’m encouraging people to write their own stories and perform them which is maybe more like poetry. I’m not sure what I am in any of it, but I’m happy to just cruise along and be whatever people want me to be.
You first rose to public prominence when in 2014 you won The UK Poetry Slam at The Royal Albert Hall. Can you tell us about the experience, & what was the prize?
There was no prize but it has definitely helped me get exposure and book gigs. I came joint first with Vanessa Kissule – another brilliant poet. It was a long day, I think about 100 poets taking part. I really liked being one of the only Scottish people there, I think it gave me a bit of an edge. Slams are fun as long as you don’t take them too seriously. The best poet never wins, it’s all about manipulating the audience, it’s a performance, it’s a show but it’s so entertaining and such a buzz! That day was great because it was only my second slam and to come out top was really exciting.
You have performed all over Scotland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland and as far as Prague, New York, Victoria and Vancouver. Which are your three best gigs (in no particular order)?
That’s such a hard question! I’d say my favourite ever was at The Wickerman 2014, it was the first time I came off stage and I was like this is what I want to do. I love this feeling, I’m in control, I’m with my friends, I’m good at this, it’s sunny, the audience are enjoying it. This is it, I’m going to do whatever this is now. The BBC Stage at The Fringe with The Social’s Rappers Vs Poets is always great. There’s an audience of about 300 and it’s always absolutely terrifying cause it’s all filmed live, but I live for the pressure!! My pamphlet launch felt like another real moment – I packed out Inn Deep which was the first place I ever performed, people couldn’t get in and everyone was standing. I felt like a rockstar for about 10 mins. I had invited all my favourite musicians and poets to perform. The mic wasn’t working and my performance wasn’t perfect but it felt special and a milestone. I never thought anyone would ever want to publish me and I was so overwhelmed with the support.
What does Leyla Josephine like to do when she’s not writing?
I like to read, I drink a lot of tea, I like going for walks, seeing theatre – the madder the better. I was a ski instructor for a while so when I get to ski I absolutely love that. I used to party all the time but that’s slowly starting to fade out, I do love to dance and drink beer with my friends when I can but not I’m not as hardcore as I used to me.
The road stretches ahead much like life does.
Mount Errigal, purple in the morning light,
greets me generously.
One foot in front of the other,
they would have walked the whole way
if it wasn’t for the water.
The smell of turf reminds me of home
but you can’t eat turf,
you can only burn it
and fire in the belly
doesn’t feed the starving.
The long grass brushes against my knees
much like grief does.
The ghosts from the Gorta Mor whisper from the ditches
‘Do not be afraid, you are not alone’
One foot in front of the other,
they would have walked the whole way
if it wasn’t for the water.
I’m trying to prove something,
anything, while the earth beneath me spins,
The rain keeps me company,
it sounds like footsteps running.
I’ve got the girls.
they’ve been with me,
staggering down streets,
on table girls,
with our tales
that we keep for take-away meals,
Hold your hand
and make you tea,
come to bed with me
Seas separate us
we come home to melt into each other
the MAC counter warriors.
Belt of lipstick
Fuck him, fuck that.
Taking our bodies back.
Bring the girls out of the dark and
try call us hysterical
Fire in our cheeks
Keys between the knuckles
When we are alone
you underestimate us.
we take up
are the greatest love stories never told,
we are bold,
and the too much
We laugh just as loud as our mothers,
feel the moon in our waters,
don’t chew when we eat,
take no breath when we speak,
don’t interrupt us
we are angry
We’re coming for you,
What are the stand-out continuous themes running through your poetry?
I always want people to feel less alone in their sadness or try to dilute shame by talking about things that are not usually talked about. I mostly write about my own experiences with the hope that they tap into the universal experience.
You are currently touring your 5 star Edinburgh Fringe show Hopeless which was nominated, I understand, for both The Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award and shortlisted for Saboteur Awards for Best Spoken Word Show? How is it going so far on the road?
Yeah it’s going really well. It’s pretty hard work, I’m currently organising everything myself, marketing, photoshop, ticket sales, performing, admin, tech – it gets really exhausting and a bit lonely. But having audiences that aren’t just friends and family is really cool and I have a lot of friends that help out when they can. I feel really lucky to be able to travel and see new cities all while doing something I love.
The pamphlet version of the Hopeless has been published by Speculative Books and is illustrated by Rosalind Shrivas. Can you describe your working relationship with Rosalind?
It was so fun working with Rosalind. She managed to do a great job without even seeing the show! I would send her photos and ideas and she would come back with such amazing pieces that just brought the pamphlet to life. She blew me away every step of the way. As I said before it’s a bit different from a normal poetry pamphlet so her drawings helped shape it into a visual of the show too and actually you get different images that you don’t get in the show.
You will be performing Hopeless at the Summerhall on the 4th May. Is it the same show, or has it been tweaked over time?
I’ve now done the show to an audience 30 times. It’s changed a little but I’ve kept the structure the same mostly. I was lucky enough to have Drew Taylor come in and direct me before the tour. He was brilliant at changing little things like my facial expression or tone just slightly. It’s been quite interesting to repeat the same thing over and over again. I need to find emotion in it every time or it comes across insincere and that’s been the biggest challenge. To still find the belief and love in all the words and actions. It changes every night but my goal is to give every audience a good experience and the attention they deserve.
To someone who has never seen Hopeless, what are they to expect?
It’s a rollercoaster! Some of it is funny and some of it is upsetting. I talk about my dad, my great-great grandfather, The Day After Tomorrow, The refugee crisis and walking 55 miles one day to try and prove a point! I always want people to leave feeling hopeful but it really depends on the person.
What does the rest of 2018 hold in store for Leyla Josephine?
Hopeless is on at The Brighton Fringe, The Prague Fringe and Migration Matters Festival.
I’m starting to make my new show ‘Daddy Drag’ to be performed at The Fringe 2019! Lots more workshops and writing and walks on the beach hopefully (no pun intended).
Leyla will be performing Hopeless @
Edinburgh’s Summerhall, this Friday, the 4th May
Price: £12 / £10
Edinburgh International Conference Center
Sunday 18th September
Not only is the Edinburgh International Book Festival spilling out into half the New Town, through its Booked! events, we’re now moving forwards in time as well. One must also admit that the Edinburgh International Conference Center is a most ravishingly salubrious local for a literary chit-chat, presenting us with the E.I.B.F @ the E.I.C.C.. Just as at Charlotte Square, we are given an hour with an author & a suitable raconteur. On this occasion, it was Nobel Prize winning Turkish author, Orhan Pamuk, with Stuart Kelly conducting the event. Kelly had given Pamuk’s breakthrough book, My Name Is Red, a very favorable review, & so as a fan, to speak, the proceedings were congenial to experience.
Orhan Pamuk’s latest book, The Red-Haired Woman, is something that had been fermenting in his psyche for ever two decades. A short novel about a well-digger & his son, he has as always injected himself & his experiences into the text, & laden it with Turkish such culturisms as a forged in the land where west meets east in phantastical clashes, upon which minds the brightest & keenest artistic minds may feed. Pamuk is clearly one of these avatars, for into his novel, as he so energetically told us with a voice that sounded like a bowstring quimmering after release, he pours father-son tragedies such as Sohrab & Rustum, & Oedipus Rex. He then delighted in telling us how Sophocles nigh-forgotten play was brought to international fame by Sigmund Freud, & also how the modern audience has a completely different response to the play. Where we show pity, the ancients were glad to see some proper karmic retribution. Such musing sealed the deal for me, & I recognized a deep-souled individual in Mr Pamuk & even bought a book as I departed.
Reviewer : Damo
“Nackt kann die Wahrheit vor dem Volke nicht erscheinen.”
—Arthur Schopenhauer, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, Zweiter Band, Kapitel 17
The election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States of America gives further evidence, if needed, that Americans wish to be led by cartoon characters. It was not Trump the human being who acceded to the presidency. It was his screen double, which is all the American electorate has ever known of him. It was Trump the Rich Man of Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992). It was Trump the Boss of The Apprentice (2004-2015). It was Trump the Billionaire of Wrestlemania 23 (2007). Donald Trump is every bit as unreal as Flo the Progressive Insurance Girl or Colonel Sanders—all three of these characters are strategic unrealities. All are holograms, shadows of living beings rather than living beings themselves. They are not human beings; they are human seemings.
Since the accession of Trump to the presidency, there have been multiple stagings, visualizations, stylings, dramatizations of the decapitation and even of the assassination of the forty-fifth President of the United States. Such simulated deaths must be understood not as calls to actually decapitate or to assassinate the living human leader, indeed the leader of the world’s sole superpower, but rather as simulations of the death of a holographic projection, stylizations of the death of a clownish figure no more real than Donald Duck. Trump belongs to Nineteen Eighties trash culture alongside other two-dimensional caricatures of human beings such as Rowdy Roddy Piper, Joe Piscopo, and Morton Downey, Jr. If any of these characters had been assassinated, their deaths would seem as unreal as these figures themselves are. One thinks of Hegel’s meditation on the derealization of death in the time of the French Revolution and wonders if Hegel’s remarks aren’t still as fresh as the paint on our computer screens: Death in the time of the French Revolution, Hegel writes, was the “coldest, shallowest of deaths, with no more significance than cleaving a cabbage head or swallowing a gulp of water.”
In J.G. Ballard’s great novel The Atrocity Exhibition, public figures such as Ronald Reagan and Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy are subjected to the morbid and sordid fantasies of the main character. Since human beings are often dark creatures, their fantasies are often dark fantasies. Why should Trump be immune from the processes of dark-fantasization and fetishization? The imaginary assassinations of Donald Trump are simulated assassinations of a character who is already a simulation. The simulated deaths of Donald Trump are nothing more than the deaths of a simulation. Donald Trump does not exist. You cannot kill something that does not exist. Just as money is the abstract representation of desire, Donald Trump is the abstract representation of a gatherer of abstract representations. To become sentient of this simulation is to become something else: to become aware that what we are witnessing is a holographic image.
I will now turn to discuss the simulated assassinations of Donald Trump. I am excluding from this discussion the real attempt on Trump’s life on 18 June 2016 by a young Briton, as well as the subornation of Trump’s murder by celebrities such as Johnny Depp (a Kentucky-born actor with an affected European accent) and Madonna, who are themselves also unrealities.
In a 2016 promotional video for his tenth studio album Heaven Upside Down (a much better title than Say10, the original name of the album), Marilyn Manson chimerized the decapitation of Donald Trump. This is the first and most artful chimerical execution of the president. The other representations of the assassination of Trump could safely be classified as agitprop or as artless publicity stunts.
In a video for the song “Lavender” by the Toronto-based electronic jazz band BadBadNotGood, Snoop Dogg (also known as “Snoop Lion” and “Snoopzilla”) can be seen mock-executing a clown who resembles Donald Trump. Incredibly, Snoop once had a congenial relationship with Trump, who sang dithyrambs in his honor: “You know Snoop Dogg? He’s the greatest. One of the nation’s best-selling hip-hop artists. And I’ll tell you what: He’s a great guy. And he’s a lot different than you think. You know, you think he’s a wild man? He’s a very, very smart, tough businessman, in addition to being a great musician.” The director of the video, professional YouTube videographer Jesse Wellens, was wise not to directly represent the execution of the president. He was unwise to do worse what Marilyn Manson did better.
The most sanguinary simulation of the assassination of Donald Trump was performed by comedienne Kathy Griffin, who arranged a photograph of herself in which she raised a severed wax head that resembled the head of the Commander-in-Chief. Her hair the same shade of red as the hair on the blood-bespattered head she holds aloft, her facial expression joyless, and her skin alabaster, she seems like a French revolutionary a few moments after the guillotine chops off the head of the monarch. At the press conference which she must have anticipated, Griffin said tristfully, as if in explanation, “I’ve dealt with older white guys trying to keep me down my whole life, my whole career.” One cannot suppress the question: Was she thinking of her father when she said this? Did the disembodied wax head perhaps summon memories of her father? Does she have a conscious or unconscious hatred for her father? Her real father, John Patrick Griffin, died in 2007 of a heart failure at the age of ninety-one. In any event, the performance piece was condemned by almost everyone on the Right and on the Left. CNN announced that Griffin would not be invited back to host its annual New Year’s Eve program.
Rightwing activists pretended to be scandalized by the 2017 open-air dramatization of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar by New York’s Public Theater. During the performances, which took place in Central Park, Julius Caesar is dressed up as Donald Trump. The fictionalized murder of this Caesar-Trump is nowhere near as bloody as it is alleged to have been by Plutarch in his Lives, where, it is written, the body of Caesar was mutilated, mangled, and hacked to pieces. Plutarch even records that Caesar’s genitalia were stabbed. On 17 June 2017, Laura Loomer—one of the video personalities of Rebel Media, the Canadian rightist video company—jumped on stage during a performance of the play while live-recording herself. She screeched: “Stop the normalization of political violence against the Right! This is unacceptable. You cannot promote this kind of violence against Donald Trump.” She was joined by Jack Posobiec, former Washington correspondent for Rebel Media, who bellowed: “You are all Goebbels! You are all Nazis like Joseph Goebbels! You are inciting terrorists!” By disturbing the performance of the play, both of these people resembled those who the Right hates—those who commove performances and presentations. How are they any different? Even worse, they shattered the dramaturgical illusion that the architects and the performers of the play were struggling to create. Loomer twittered about the incident breathlessly: “The moment I rushed the stage of Julius Caesar. Listen to the violence and stabbing of ‘Trump’ that occurred right before. It is revolting.”
Before I consider the question as to whether Shakespeare’s Caesar has anything in common with Donald Trump, I will turn my attention to the text of the play itself.
* * * * *
The Tragedy of Julius Caesar (1599) is Shakespeare’s attempt to explain the motives behind the assassination of Caesar on the Ides of March in 44 B.C.E. and to show the baleful consequences that emerged from this assassination. (The Ides of March: the fifteenth of March on the Roman calendar, the day of settling debts. The day on which Caesar is forced to pay his debt to the conspirators.) The play also passes judgment, I believe, on the conspiracy to assassinate the Roman leader. In doing so, it passes judgment on all such plots to overthrow monarchies, dictatorships, and tyrannies. It is the antithesis of Measure for Measure (circa 1603), Shakespeare’s most politically liberal play, and one almost as politically conservative as The Tragedy of Coriolanus (1605-1608), one of T.S. Eliot’s favorite works of literature.
When we hear of him in the first scene of the play, Caesar is fresh from destroying the sons of the previous emperor, Pompey, in the Battle of Munda, the last battle against the optimates of the old Roman Republic. Caesar has been anointed the “perpetual dictator” of Rome, a dictator with no term limit. He is slated to become king. But there have been no kings in Rome, not since Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, and that was in 495 B.C.E., over four centuries ago, and most of the Roman senators and tribunes worry that Caesar will become overweeningly arrogant and sodden with his own godlike authority. Above all, most of them envy Caesar.
The assassination of Caesar leads to self-assassinations, lynchings, pogroms, purges, and civil war. The play culminates in a Jonestown-like mass suicide. The same blade that Cassius stuck into the emperor is plunged into Cassius’s own torso. He does so on his birthday. The anniversary of the day of his nativity coincides with the day of his self-imposed death. I cannot think of a clearer example of cosmic irony in Western literature than that of Cassius’s suicide—the fact that Cassius murders himself with the same blade that he sunk into the body of the Dear Leader. Titinius follows him. Brutus expires while exhaling Caesar’s name: “Caesar, now be still” [V:v]. Portia “swallows fire” [IV:iii], literally—a ghastly death that mirrors her husband’s inward bursting, his imploding. She is burning up on the inside literally; her husband is disintegrating on the inside metaphorically.
The crowd turns mobbish, and mobbishness takes over Rome. The mob tears an innocent man to pieces in the street (the Poet Cinna). This scene (Act Three, Scene Three), which quickly moves from the comic to the hideous, recalls the opening moment of the play, in which a crowd of plebeians jeers at Flavius and Murellus, sneering tribunes of the people. The point seems to be that democracy, when it uses antimonarchical means, is indistinguishable from ochlocracy. The city descends into mob violence as the result of the antimonarchical violence of the conspirators.
Until tyranny takes hold once more. Octavius, the new tyrant, and Antony are motivated not so much by revanchism, by the desire for righteous vengeance and for the restoration of the ancient regime, as by political ambition, or, what amounts to the same thing, the hatred of subjection. Their “love of Caesar” is really a lust for power or is coterminous with the lust for power. The senators fail at establishing a constitutional monarchy (assuming that this is what they desired to begin with). Such the cosmic irony of the play: One tyrant replaces the other.
The reconstitution of tyranny is brought about by rhetoric—by swaying the crowd with words. Rhetoric is the art of persuading people to do what you want them to do—not to do what you would do yourself. Rhetoric is the art is the art of persuading people to believe what you want them to believe—not to believe what you believe yourself.
When Antony says that his heart is in the coffin with Caesar, this triggers an emotional response in the audience. Brutus’s introductory speech is weak (it is logocentric). Shakespeare intentionally writes it weakly. Antony’s speech soars on the wings of pathopoeia (it is pathocentric) and thus throws the crowd into a frenzy. A classic exercise in rhetoric, pathopoeia is an emotionally provocative speech or piece of writing, the content of which is insignificant. It is not a speech in which the speaker cries, but a speech that makes the audience cry. As such, it is pure manipulation: Notice that Brutus says things that he could not possibly know—for instance, where on the body each conspirator stabbed Brutus.
The point seems to be that democracy fails. Human beings are political animals, and the lust for power supersedes the humanistic and demotic impulses. Only Brutus has a genuine love of humanity, and his role in the assassination of Caesar was motivated by a sincere desire to better the lives of the Roman people. But he is presented as politically naïve. The naïve, incautious idealist, he naïvely allows Mark Antony to speak to the crowd, which ends in Brutus, Cassius, and company being driven out of Rome. Cassius, who is much shrewder politically (he is a Realpolitiker) and politically more mature, cautions Brutus against doing so. Indeed, Cassius recommends that Antony be slaughtered along with Caesar, and Cassius knows well that slicing Antony’s throat open would have saved him and his brother-in-law from their fates. “This tongue had not offended so today,” Cassius says sneeringly to Antony, “[i]f Cassius might have ruled” [V:i]. And yet Cassius is willing to give Antony political power after the assassination is done: “Your voice shall be as strong as any man’s / In the disposing of new dignities” [III:i].
Misinterpretations surround the execution of Caesar: Not only does Brutus catastrophically underestimate Antony; Antony underestimates Cassius [I:ii]. Cassius, in turn, misapprehends Titinius, which leads to Cassius’s self-murder, and Caesar, of course, underestimates those he calls his friends. He ignores the warnings of Calphurnia, the Soothsayer, and Artemidorus.
This leads one to wonder if Brutus did not overestimate the tyrannical nature of Caesar. The entire argument for Caesar’s assassination is based on a surmise, a conjecture, a speculation: “So Caesar may. / Then lest he may, prevent” [II:i]. Epexegesis: In other words, Caesar might become an unbearable tyrant; therefore, he will become an unbearable tyrant. The justification after the deed: Caesar would have become an intolerable tyrant, if he were allowed to live. One is reminded of the question asked in Stephen King’s The Dead Zone: “If you could go back in time to Germany, before Hitler came to power, knowing what you know now, would you kill him?” Many would answer, “Yes.” Yet the argument that Caesar would have become a brutal tyrant and the Romans would have become slaves is a specious one.
It is the Iago-like Cassius who seduces Brutus into murdering Caesar in a way that is similar to the way in which Iago inveigled Othello into committing uxoricide. Cassius presents himself as Brutus’s own “glass” [I:ii], as both the mirror and the image that appears within the mirror, as the speculum and his specular image, as his replica, as his double, as his simulation, as the reflective surface by which Brutus is able to see himself—as the only means by which Brutus is able to see himself—and as his own reflection. Cassius imposes upon Brutus’s mind the plan to commit tyrannicide. He insinuates his own thoughts into the mind of Brutus.
(Let me remark parenthetically that Cassius even sounds like Iago. His “If I were Brutus now, and he were Cassius, / He should not humour me” [I:ii] proleptically anticipates Iago’s “Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago.” The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice will be written five years later.)
Brutus has a divided self. A fractured self. On the one hand, he has genuine affection for Caesar; on the other, a ghostly, anonymous, impersonal voice has colonized his mind and is commanding him to kill a man toward whom he bears no ill will: “[F]or my part, / I know no personal cause to spurn at him / But for the general” [II:i]. From an external perspective, he is a freedom fighter who believes that a constitutional monarchy would be better for the Roman people than a tyranny—but this idea is not his own and does not correspond to his feelings. This self-division would explain why Brutus, with a guilty conscience, proposes to carve up Caesar’s body as if it were a feast for the gods rather than hew his body as if it were a meal for the hounds [II:i]. But what is the difference, ultimately? Killing is killing, knifing is knifing, hacking is hacking, shanking is shanking.
Shakespeare teaches us, around the same time that he begins work on The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, that there is no such thing as a unified personality—that every subjectivity is fractured and complexly self-contradictory and self-contradictorily complex. Indeed, Brutus’s soliloquy is the precursor to Hamlet’s more famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy. Whether or not to kill himself is not yet the question; the question is whether or not to kill Caesar. Rather than ask “To be or not to be,” Brutus asks, in effect, “Should Caesar be, or should Caesar no longer be?” Brutus’s “[T]here’s the question” [II:i] forecasts Hamlet’s “That is the question.” Brutus, as the proto-Hamlet, is speaker and listener at the same time. He affects himself.
No wonder that Portia, Brutus’s wife, gives herself a “voluntary wound” in the thigh [II:i]. She is mutilating herself literally, whereas Brutus is mutilating himself metaphorically. She is a cutter, but so is Brutus. Her self-cutting mirrors his self-cutting. It is disappointing that this scene was cut from the 1953 and 1970 film versions of the play.
No wonder that Brutus will suppress his feelings for his wife after she kills herself: “Speak no more of her” [IV:iii], he says with mock coldness to Messala. He suppresses his feelings for the emperor, after all. But this does not mean that Brutus is cold-blooded; far from it. I believe Brutus when he says to Portia that she is as “dear to [him] as are the ruddy drops / [t]hat visit [his] sad heart” [II:i]. He is a Roman Stoic (with Platonist leanings), and Stoics do not betray their feelings—another sign that Brutus is divided against himself.
Not merely is Brutus divided into warring factions; Rome is divided into warring factions. When Brutus says in Act Two, Scene One that “the state of man” is suffering “the nature of an insurrection,” he is referring both to himself and to Rome. Two acts later: As the conspirators run for their lives and fight from the outside, Octavius, the adopted son of Caesar, comes to Rome, and Mark Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus form an unholy triumvirate and will divide the spoils between them after the defeat of their enemies. “Happy day,” indeed [V:v]! It is clear that Antony is planning to kill Lepidus once Lepidus has stopped being useful to him. He expends more words on his horse and on asinine and equine similes than he does on the serviceable Lepidus himself:
Octavius, I have seen more days than you; / And though we lay these honours on this man / To ease ourselves of diverse slanderous loads, / He shall but bear them as the ass bears gold, / To groan and sweat under the business, / Either led or driven, as we point the way: / And having brought our treasure where we will, / Then take we down his load and turn him off, / Like to the empty ass, to shake his ears / And graze in commons… Do not talk of him / But as a property [IV:i].
Not only that: Antony threatens to curtail the benefits to the Roman people that were promised in Caesar’s will (a stimulus package for every Roman, access to Caesar’s once-private gardens and orchards)—the promise of these benefits ferments and foments the crowd, turning the crowd into a mob. (The word mob comes from the Latin mobilis, which means “movable,” and is etymologically connected to the words mobile and mobilize. A mob is a crowd in action.) Antony says to Octavius and Lepidus: “[W]e shall determine / How to cut off some charge in legacies” [IV:i]. In other words, we will reduce the number of drachmas that every Roman was promised and perhaps repossess the gardens and orchards that we promised them, as well.
Within the factions, there are factions: Cassius and Brutus squabble as if they were fractious luchadores in the third scene of the fourth act. Mark Antony and Octavius disagree on who should move to the left in the first scene of the fifth act:
ANTONY: Octavius, lead your battle softly on, / Upon the left hand of the even field.
OCTAVIUS: Upon the right hand I. Keep thou the left.
ANTONY: Why do you cross me in this exigent?
OCTAVIUS: I do not cross you: but I will do so.
Let us not forget the intrusions of the supernatural / the intimations of the supernatural: The lioness that whelps in the street [II:ii]. The graves that yawn and yield up their dead [II:ii]. The nightbird that hoots and shrieks at noon in the marketplace [I:iii]. (Why no filmmaker, as far as I know, has represented these oneiric images is a mystery to me.) The lightning storms that frame the conspiracy to dispatch Caesar—in the third scene of the first act and in the second scene of the second act. Calphurnia listens to the thunder and studies the lightning and interprets these as fatidic signs, as if she were a ceraunomancer (someone who divines supernatural or transcendent meaning from the heavens) [II:ii]. Cassius is a ceraunologist (someone who poetically or pseudoscientifically compares the movements of the heavens with worldly events): He sees the “dreadful night / [t]hat thunders, lightens, opens graves and roars” [I:iii] as the celestial complement to Caesar’s unnamed worldly violence. The ghosts, the supernaturalized beasts, the signs of the heavens that are interpreted as wonders or metaphors: The point of the supernatural is to call into question the tyrannicide.
The self-murder, the military violence, the mobbishness, the madness, the pandemonium, the infantile squabbling, the familial betrayals, the portents, the interference of the supernatural—all of this issues from the killing of Caesar or from the conspiracy to kill Caesar. All of these are symptoms of a disease brought on by the pathogenic act of violence against the emperor. Shakespeare would seem to agree with Goethe, who claimed that the murder of Caesar is “the most absurd act that ever was committed”; for Goethe, this act proved that even the best of the Romans did not understand what government is for (Nachgelassene Werke, xiii, p. 68). Seen from this perspective, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is a politically reactionary play, one that justifies authoritarian dictatorship, if not outright tyranny. Again, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is one of Shakespeare’s most politically conservative plays, second only to The Tragedy of Coriolanus, one of the most reactionary plays ever written.
If the play is politically ambiguous (neither endorsing statism nor rejecting it), then why do we see so little evidence of Caesar’s unbearable tyranny? The play shows us more instances of Caesar’s feebleness than of his tyrannousness (all in the second scene of the first act): Caesar’s epileptic fit in the marketplace, his poor hearing, his feverishness in Spain, his near-drowning in the Tiber. Save for the sole instance of the banishment of Publius Cimber, there is no evidence that Caesar is oppressive. There is much more evidence that the play condemns the assassination of Caesar than there is evidence that the play takes a neutral stance on the assassination. Indeed, one could write, without fear of repudiation, that the play takes a stand against the assassination of Julius Caesar—and thus, a stand against the overthrow of authoritarian dictatorships.
Despite its title, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is not the tragedy of Julius Caesar. Caesar only has 130 lines and, in spite of what Whoopi Goldberg claims, does not die at the end of the play, but in the middle. The execution of Caesar divides the text into two parts: the first deals with the motives behind the deed; the second deals with its consequences. It is the tragedy not of Caesar, but of Brutus, whose desires are not his own and who is not his own.
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The Tragedy of Julius Caesar anticipates its reception by future audiences. Like the atrociously underrated Troilus and Cressida (1602), characters are conscious that they are the unreal representations of real historical human beings. In Troilus and Cressida, Achilles spreads the fake news that “Achilles hath the mighty Hector slain,” and the reader / the spectator gets the impression that Achilles is aware that the legend will be printed and become historical. In Julius Caesar, characters (Cassius and Brutus) are conscious that the play will be performed for centuries after the death of their author in countless different languages. Cassius: “How many ages hence / Shall this our lofty scene be acted over / In states unborn and accents yet unknown?” [III:i]. And why else would Brutus’s final words be retained, untranslated, in the original Latin? The characters look backward into the dizzying abyss of history.
Did Shakespeare ever anticipate that Caesar would be costumed as a buffoon?
To return to the Central Park staging of Julius Caesar: There are at least three reasons why Caesar has nothing in common with Trump.
Reason One: Trump panders, but does not debase himself
Caesar debases himself at Lupercalia, the Festival of the Wolf, by refusing a crown that is offered to him three times and—after swooning, foaming at the mouth, and falling in the public square—by begging “wenches” in the street for forgiveness [I:ii]. (Lupercalia took place on 15 February on the Roman calendar and celebrated Lupa, the lactating Wolf Goddess who suckled Romulus and Remus in the cave of Lupercal, and the Goat God Lupercus, the God of Shepherds.) But his self-debasement is staged. It is the staged inversion of relations between the powerful and the powerless. It is not genuine, sincere self-mortification. His repeated refusal of the crown, in particular, is what rhetoricians call accismus: the feigned refusal of that which is earnestly desired.
Caesar is beloved of the people (we see this in the first scene of the play). There is no question that Caesar was friendlier to the people than his predecessor, Pompey. According to Suetonius, Caesar supported the plebeians and the tribunes, who represented the interests of the people. Caesar endorsed the redistribution of land and opposed the optimates, who wanted to limit the power of the plebeians. He was called a popularis for a reason. Pompey, on the other hand, favored a much stricter authoritarian rule.
Trump styled himself as a populist political candidate, and this no doubt contributed to his triumph over Hillary Rodham Clinton, the establishment Democratic candidate in November 2016. Is Trump, then, a man of the people in the way that Caesar was a man of the people?
Trump’s language is the language of the people—of inarticulate, slow-witted people. His grammatical skills are those of an unremarkable eleven-year-old boy, according to a 2016 study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University. He used a relatively sophisticated language in the 1980s and 1990s, however. Many of his sentences had an admirable rotundity—for instance, “It could have been a contentious route” and “These are the only casinos in the United States that are so rated” (qtd. in Sharon Begley, “Trump wasn’t always so linguistically challenged. What could explain the change?” STAT, 23 May 2017). While campaigning for the presidency, his verbal skills appeared to decompose. On 30 December 2015, Trump peacocked to a South Carolinian crowd: “I’m very highly educated. I know words. I know the best words.” He might have dumbed down his language for purely political reasons, for purely demotic purposes. This has the effect of flattering those with low linguistic skills.
Dumbing down, however, is not self-abasement. Trump never speaks in a self-deprecating manner. He never displays the false humility of Caesar. Trump reflects the vulgarity, the vaingloriousness, the cupidity, and the rapacity of the crowd. He is endlessly trumpeting his own excellence. He does not debase himself. He represents himself as someone who demands that his glistening manliness be acknowledged and respected.
Reason Two: Trump is not constant
Caesar is nothing if not pertinacious. Trump is nothing if not inconstant.
Caesar holds on to his decision to banish Publius Cimber, despite the senators’ entreaties to rescind his banishment. He is as “constant as the northern star” [III:i]. Suetonius praised Caesar for his steadfastness.
Trump, on the other hand, is a syrupy waffle. He has waffled on the travel ban and on the unbuilt Mexico-American Wall. Incidentally, Trump loves waffles “when they’re done properly with butter and syrup.” He rhapsodized: “There’s nothing better than properly done waffles with butter and syrup all over them.”
Reason Three: Trump is the betrayer, not the betrayed
Julius Caesar was betrayed by his intimates, even by his favorite, Brutus. Though I cannot find the source of this citation, I remember reading a saying attributed to Caesar: “Against my enemies my guards can protect me; against my friends, they can do nothing.” This saying has been repeated, without acknowledgement, by Voltaire (“Let God defend me from my friends; I can defend myself from my enemies”) and Charlotte Brontë: “I can be on guard against my enemies, but God deliver me from my friends!”
Trump, on the other hand, has betrayed members of his inner circle—Sean Spicer, Anthony Scaramucci, James Comey, Sally Yates, Paul Manafort, Steve Bannon—in a series of Night of the Long Knives-style purges. One thinks of The Apprentice’s slogan and mantra: “You’re fired.” I am writing this paragraph on 18 August 2017, the day on which Bannon’s faux-resignation has been announced. Who else in his administration will Trump have fired by the time you read my words?
Trump shares nothing with the Julius Caesar of Shakespeare. There is nothing wrong with contemporizing art—I myself have done this with Hedda Gabler—but there must be reasons for specific contemporizations. Those who believe that Julius Caesar can be reasonably dressed up as Donald Trump are the same people who think that a text-message Hamlet or a dubstep Macbeth is a good idea. I have descanted at length on the play’s political stance: If the staging equates Trump to Caesar, then Trump is exonerated by the production. The Central Park performance of the play unintentionally defends Trump.
Consumer culture idolizes the ordinary. To use Adorno and Horkheimer’s language in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, the trumpery of the culture industry “heroizes the average.” In this culture, which is gradually becoming the only culture on the Planet Earth, untalented filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino are hailed as geniuses, whereas visionaries such as Michelangelo Antonioni as written off as boring. Incompetent writers such as David Foster Wallace are lionized, while truly great writers such as James Joyce are blithely dismissed as “pretentious.” Even worse, the works of both filmmakers / writers are sometimes leveled off, as if they were of equal quality. Along the same lines: Trump is screened through Shakespeare not because Shakespeare represents the highest values and Trump represents the lowest values, but because the highest values have no meaning in a culture in which the low trumps the high. In the Central Park staging of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, Trump is not vaunted to the heights of Shakespeare; Shakespeare is dumbed down to the status of Trump. Why is this? In consumer culture, what is low is elevated and what is high is degraded.
By Joseph Suglia
The Studio Theatre @ the EIBF
The ‘Sound of Breath’ hour I recently experienced at the EIBF was essentially about the pause – sometimes percussive, sometimes silent – that moment in poetry & music which breaks the mood & elevates the spiritual awareness of the voyeur. Chaired by David Fuller, we would spend a wonderful & informative hour with composer Sally Beamish, & poet Michael Symmons Roberts, ‘two distinguished practitioners‘ of their craft as Fuller gleefully told us. Indeed, both are quite polymathic, with novels & concertos & the such like bounding about their brains, we – & the subject – were definitely in capable hands.
What followed was an informative tour of each other’s backstories, where moments of the breath’s effect on composition were most noticeable. Beamish recalled an anonymous Tuscan text which inspired a lullaby she had composed, whole Roberts described, with much animation, the lungs & larynx of Byron being preserved in Missolonghi. Symmons also chipped into the ongoing argument which says that spoken poetry is best only on the lips of the original poet, by denying this & declaring ‘some poets are terrible readers of their own work.’ Beamish agreed, & explained that writing poetry is rather like composing a score, & different levels of performer may bring the music to life. All in all, I witnessed a fascinating artistic conversation between two proud & passionate protagonists of their individual art, who descried that it is better that we all learn to breathe together.
Reviewer : Damo
Edinburgh International Book Festival
Reni Eddo-Lodge, a Black British activist, journalist and author has been making waves recently with her viral blog post turned book, ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race’. Just one of her appearances in Edinburgh this week, this session was a debate around gender and race that was one of the more satisfying and interesting in the festival. All the more so because the other two participants replaced the original speakers at the last minute, so it had an energetic, less scripted feel. The other writer was ‘Queen of Teen’, Juno Dawson, a transgender woman author and fellow activist, who, with her glamorous attire and self-deprecating wit brought a lighthearted approach to some serious issues. She is the author of many books for teenagers and leading education work in schools to promote understanding and acceptance of transgender people. Laurie Penny, also an activist, journalist and author of ‘Bitch Diaries’ among many, acted as chair, delighted to be with two of her ‘idols’. Because of this she kept the atmosphere vibrant and was completely up to speed on the relevant issues, if not having had the usual preparation time to have every fact of their careers at her fingertips. be able to keep the ideas rolling at top speed.
Reni discussed the new language being used to denigrate activism for human rights and full equalities, such as the reductive term ‘identity politics’, which doesn’t take into account that a deep understanding of anti-racism necessarily includes a complete restructuring of our current society. Social justice warrior and alt-left all show that the kickback against the loss of power and privilege, that expresses itself in intersectional ways from gender amongst the alt-right and race within feminism. The situating of people outside the dominant group as ‘other’ against ‘the norm’ creates problems when people are asked to reflect on their own power and even recognise their own privilege. Reni’s work is a clear political and structural analysis of power, and not a personal story, and yet is she asked over and over again, about how she feels. Juno explained that her book the Gender Games was meant to be a dry book of essays but emerged as an impassioned account of her own experiences as both genders.
Juno explained the phrase ‘cis gender’, and how much fear and ignorance exists around the term, and that trans-people are nothing new in the world, but exploited as a media freak show in the 1980’s, and that the language used and fears expressed are very similar to issues of gay acceptance from that period. She broke down her wants very simply. ‘We just want you to listen and try to understand.’ She talked for a while of the hoops through which you have to jump to be even taken seriously by the NHS, and the fact that people often have to subscribe to narrow gender expectations such as making sure that you don’t wear trousers to an appointment.
As always, you are left wishing there was more time to continue the discussion. Particularly in this current climate, as these issues are coming to a head, the question of whether we should remove statues that create a painful reminder of past violence and oppression is a hot topic, which Eddo-Lodge is firmly in favour of. Questions ranged from the role of empathy in being a solution, while continuing to be critically anti racist, cultural appropriation, how inclusive and appropriate the term ‘person of colour’ is to how white-passing mixed race people can be the best ally to Black people or be the most useful anti-discrimination activist. They encouraged the audience to continually critically evaluate and challenge the mainstream media and play an active role in debate. Three brilliant, engaged and lively women authors and activists had the audience rapt and will now doubt continue to inspire many along their journey.
Reviewed by: Lisa Williams
Edinburgh International Book Festival
Baillie Gifford Corner Theatre
23rd August 2017
In 1959 C.P. Snow, who was both a physical chemist and a novelist, delivered Cambridge University’s annual Rede Lecture, in which he spoke of the ‘two cultures’ of the humanities and the sciences, and how a gulf of mutual incomprehension had grown up between them. Today in the Corner Theatre we have been listening to speakers whose professional and academic efforts have continued both because of and despite that gap, in areas that have had a more than tangential relationship to the humanities in general and Literature in particular.
Josie Billington is Deputy Director of the Centre for Research into Reading at the University of Liverpool, and is also involved with the charity ‘The Reader’, which exists to facilitate reading groups where people who may be experiencing mental health issues can share readings of ‘great literature’. I have put quotation marks round that last term both to indicate that these are the exact words that appear on the web site of ‘The Reader’, and just to acknowledge that it is a term that has been challenged over the recent decades, though not today, Dr. Billington’s speciality being in the nineteenth century literary canon. Her recent book – and yes, this is an EIBF event so there has to be one – is entitled Is Literature Healthy? and it sets out the argument for the therapeutic value of reading.
Rick Rylance is Dean of the School of Advanced Study at the University of London, and Rector of the Institute of English Studies. Until recently he was also CEO of the UK’s Arts & Humanities Research Council, and his new book, Literature And The Public Good, comes from his experience as an advocate for culture and literature in particular to those who tread the thick-piled carpets of the corridors of power. Both Dr. Billington’s and Professor Rylance’s books are published by the Oxford University Press in a series of monographs entitled ‘The Literary Agenda’. The event was chaired by prominent Scottish GP and non-fiction writer Gavin Francis, who gave each of the main speakers ten minutes or so at the podium to explain the thrust of their books, before asking them for amplification of some of their points, and eventually moderating a brief Q&A.
Josie Billington spoke quite movingly about her work with The Reader, giving examples of literary texts that had voiced the inexpressible at the core of depression. There was a passage from Geroge Eliot’s Middlemarch, two lines by Christina Rossetti – “We lack, yet cannot fix upon the lack: / not this, nor that; yet somewhat, certainly.” – and two verses from John Clare’s ‘I am’. “Literature,” she said, “can make private and barely expressible things more personally felt and more publicly shareable.” A case in point was that of a reading group member who, on reading the verses by Clare, left the room for half an hour and, on coming back said “I need this language.”
Normalising the deep sadness that is often diagnosed and medicated as depression seemed to be the goal. I must confess to having mixed feelings about this, on the one hand being pleased for the therapeutic effect of literature on people who needed it, but on the other hand having to roll my eyes that something more than one person in my own family has fought very hard to have clinically diagnosed and taken seriously is now being brought back into ‘normality’.
Rick Rylance spoke of publishing and all associated enterprises accounting for seven percent of the UK’s Gross Domestic Product, being worth about £84bn per year, bigger than either the pharmaceutical or finance sectors. It is “a real and dynamic sector,” and culture in general lent the country diplomatic credibility and economic trust internationally. Reading is a mainstream activity, and “there is research that correlates ‘cultural participation’ with living longer.”
“Why,” he asked, “is cultural life in Britain, not least in policy circles and quite senior levels in government, seen as an add-on, a secondary phenomenon, a ‘nice-to-have-but-now-let’s-get-serious’?” A questioner from the floor suggested that the last thing the politically powerful wanted was the general population acquiring the kind of critical thinking that studying literature brings with it, to which he said this:
“My experience of Whitehall does not incline me to think that politicians are either the most intellectually or imaginatively generous individuals. They’re there for a quick fix, and they’re there for making a certain kind of impression, and to further their careers. None of that encourages me to believe they would be interested in critical thinking, because it requires a deal of work and reflection, and, frankly, knowledge […]” What worried him a little about the question, however was the idea that the humanities have a monopoly on critical thinking, when it was also a required and acquired skill of scientists and medics. “It’s a property of becoming intelligently informed, not of doing this discipline or that discipline.”
Despite the differences in the two speakers’ approaches to and uses of literature, they converged on many things. They saw literature as a ‘common possession’, and that it had to do not so much with private thought as with communication and transmission – economics and therefore politics could not grasp the way that the value inherent in a book, which may be lent or given away or discussed or used as a therapeutic aid, its concern with hopes and ambitions and emotions, is much more than its cover price.
There is also a problem with studying literature, however, when deep engagement or even pleasurable lightness, is sacrificed for “three or four talking points for an essay.”
Though other events this year may have given me a buzz through my being in the same room as a literary giant, this is the one which has engaged me most directly, the one which has been most intellectually stimulating and satisfying. Also I commend Dr. Billington and Professor Rylance for the clarity with which they argued their cases. I didn’t get an opportunity to buy either speaker’s book, but I may well do so at the next opportunity.
Reviewed by Paul Thompson