I was binge-watching the new season of House of Cards, and reading some of the work of the literary critic Roland Barthes, and they came together in an unexpected way.
For one, I finally have at least part of the answer to why drama has captivated civilization right from the ancients to contemporary times. As Barthes points out about theatre:
What is expected is the intelligible representation of moral situations which are usually private. This emptying out of interiority to the benefit of its exterior signs, this exhaustion of the content by the form, is the very principle of triumphant classical art…What is thus displayed for the public is the great spectacle of Suffering, Defeat, and Justice.
One obvious problem already appears: Frank Underwood isn’t a paragon of Justice, in fact he has murdered people just because they were getting in his way. This seeming problem goes away once we let go of a parochial, essentialist understanding of what “justice” means in fiction.
By virtue of the suspension of disbelief the fiction lulls us into, what counts as justice depends on the rules and props involved in the story before us. For example, good fiction can get us cheering for serial killers like Sweeney Todd and Dexter, even getting us to think that they deserve to be rewarded as long as they follow the relevant rules. The explanation for this lies in part in the fact that we are not the disembodied spectators so much of moral philosophy would have- we are instead parochial, tribalistic, and always situated. Once we identify with a character, what we think of as “right” typically corresponds to what benefits the character. The villain is the enemy of the character we like, not necessarily the most immoral person. Of course, none of this is set in stone- we can have conflicting feelings, change our minds with time and reflection, etc. But this gives us some traction into inquiring about how we can enjoy fictions with immoral protagonists.
To see how House of Cards resembles Ancient Drama, consider its similarity with the Iliad. Contrary to some public assumptions, the Iliad is not a story about the siege of Troy, it’s about the Achilles and his singular ways (the book in fact begins with “Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles”). Just as Achilles is driven throughout solely by his desire for fame, Frank Underwood is driven solely by his desire for power. Both of them would be incredibly unlikable in real life, but within the story we actually root for them. It is taking their idiosyncratic ends seriously that makes these characters intelligible, and even likable.
These are characters for whom a single goal is important, and all their success rides on whether these are accomplished. If we’re immersed in the fictional world they develop, then we accept this and put aside out usual notions of morality, not because we’re consciously choosing to ignore real life morality, but because other codes of behaviour seems more natural within this world we’re immersed in. That being said, little of the characters’ behaviour is completely alien to us: the will to power and fame is something we can all relate to. The settings are not radically altered, as much as rearranged to make some things prominent and others suppressed.
With a sense of how Drama has both elements of familiarity and the alien, we see fiction for the genius that it is- it removes us from our usual settings, but not so much that we cannot relate to the general themes anymore. So even though both House of Cards and the Iliad are set in incredibly remote setting for most of us (the White House, and ancient Greece), the underlying motivations are ones that are all too familiar.
Barthes’ analysis is finally intelligible: what makes dramatic theatre (including House of Cards) so captivating and enjoyable is (at least in part) our inner passions and concepts portrayed tangibly and in excess, making them intelligible visually. For example, domestic disputes among couples play out in clearly discernible ways on an international stage, the impulse to control the behaviour of others is portrayed in wanton murder, etc. Through Drama, we can contemplate the human condition presented visually from a place of relative safety, that is, of the spectator.
P.S. Claire Underwood & Classic Hollywood
I am obsessed with Claire Underwood (played by Robin Wright) in the show, because she seems to be a throwback to actresses from Classic Hollywood, who could draw attention in any shot by simply being on-screen. Possessing a strange luminosity, they always seem like an image unto themselves, images within the image [of the camera shot]. Barthes’ analysis of Greta Garbo comes close to what I mean:
Garbo still belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy, when one literally lost oneself in a human image as one would in a philtre, when the face represented a kind of absolute state of the flesh, which could be neither reached nor renounced. A few years earlier the face of Valentino was causing suicides; that of Garbo still partakes of the same rule of Courtly Love, where the flesh gives rise to mystical feelings of perdition.
It is indeed an admirable face-object…it is not a painted face, but one set in plaster, protected by the surface of the colour, not by its lineaments. Amid all this snow at once fragile and compact, the eyes alone, black like strange soft flesh, but not in the least expressive, are two faintly tremulous wounds. In spite of its extreme beauty, this face, not drawn but sculpted in something smooth and fragile, that is, at once perfect and ephemeral, comes to resemble the flour-white complexion of Charlie Chaplin, the dark vegetation of his eyes, his totem-like countenance…Garbo offered to one’s gaze a sort of Platonic Idea of the human creature…her face was not to have any reality except that of its perfection, which was intellectual even more that formal.
And yet, in this deified face, something sharper than a mask is looming: a kind of voluntary and therefore human relation between the curve of the nostrils and the arch of the eyebrows; a rare, individual function relating two regions of the face. A mask is but a sum of lines; a face, on the contrary, is above all their thematic harmony. Garbo’s face represents this fragile moment when the cinema is about to draw an existential from an essential beauty, when the archetype leans towards the fascination of mortal faces, when clarity of the flesh as essence yields its place to a lyricism of Woman.”
The age of the “existential beauty” and “mortal faces” on screen is all about us, but Claire Underwood reminds us of this other, older mode of visual cinematic representation.