Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Act of Living

We all act better than we know how.

Erving Goffman

Each of our days consists of a series of performances. At some moments it’s an individual star turn; at others it’s standing to the side holding a spear. Sometimes we are forced by events of the moment to improvise our roles; at other times we play out parts that we have been able to practice (at least in our minds) at leisure.

Consider the blind date, for example: who has not, in anticipation of the event, envisioned, as a mini-drama, the forthcoming meeting? We plotted the story line and scripted the dialogue (I’ll say this; she/he will say that) as we prepared our costume and makeup.

All the little playlets and mini-dramas of daily life are part of a bigger drama—the drama of one’s own life. And here too, we have in our minds (even if not always in the forefront of our consciousness) a scenario to be enacted. But what happens when the Hollywood screenplay of our mind breaks down? When the anticipated lines are not recited by other actors? Without our cues, the words we were so certain of stick in our throat. And without words to speak, we no longer have a role, a persona. We are cast into an existential void.

(I am not concerned here with those “True Believers” I wrote about in my previous post. They shed one certainty and clothe themselves quickly in another. They are the owners of a factitious seriousness, and, therefore, not to be bothered with.)


We are in nineteenth-century Norway, a bastion of Lutheran propriety. Nora Helmer, years before Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House opens, forged her father’s signature to obtain a loan, the money of which was used to allow her ailing (and unaware) husband to travel to a healthy clime to recuperate. But now the truth has been revealed to him, and he reacts—not as Nora expected him to (or perhaps we should say, as the script in her mind fostered by the patriarchal society expected him to) react.

I have waited so patiently for eight years; for, goodness knows, I knew very well that wonderful things don't happen every day. Then this horrible misfortune came upon me; and then I felt quite certain that the wonderful thing was going to happen at last. When Krogstad's letter was lying out there, never for a moment did I imagine that you would consent to accept this man's conditions. I was so absolutely certain that you would say to him: Publish the thing to the whole world. And when that was done—
. . .

When that was done, I was so absolutely certain, you would come forward and take everything upon yourself, and say: I am the guilty one.
. . .

You mean that I would never have accepted such a sacrifice on your part? No, of course not. But what would my assurances have been worth against yours? That was the wonderful thing which I hoped for and feared; and it was to prevent that, that I wanted to kill myself.

Because her husband, Torvald, does not play his part as Nora rehearsed it in her mind, her role as heroine in the melodrama has to be abandoned, and she has to face the erasure of all meaning of her previous life.


it dawned upon me that for eight years I had been
living here with a
strange man, and had borne him
three children—

With no life script in her mind any more, Nora walks out the door on her former life. “I have no idea what is going to become of me,” she declares, but her actions will not be scripted by the conventions and beliefs of other people.


For Hamlet, too, the scenario no longer holds together. It is like an artifact whose parts have loosened, compromising its integrity.
The time is out of joint: O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!
If he can no longer trust the scenario, who—or what—is there to trust? It is no wonder, then, that he tests the honesty and loyalty of those around him.

To Horatio:

And what make you from Wittenberg, Horatio?
. . .
But what, in faith, make you from Wittenberg?
. . .
But what is your affair in Elsinore?

To Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:

What have you, my good friends, deserved at the hands of Fortune that she sends you to prison hither?
. . .
But in the beaten way of friendship, what make you at Elsinore?
. . .
Were you not sent for? Is it your own inclining? Is it a
visitation? Come, deal justly with me. Come, come! Nay, speak.

To Ophelia [in a letter]:

Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love.
'O dear Ophelia, I am ill at these numbers;
I have not art to
reckon my groans; but that
I love thee best, O most best, believe

But what exactly caused Hamlet to see his life script fall to pieces?

My lord, I came to see your father's funeral.


I prithee do not mock me, fellow student.
I think it was to see my mother's wedding.


Indeed, my lord, it followed hard upon.
The sudden death of his father and the hasty re-marriage of his mother to his uncle were the events that undermined the scenario. Hamlet’s “O that this too too solid flesh would melt“ soliloquy is occasioned by his torment over his mother’s action. Notice how his thoughts do not run smoothly but are broken up by by pained outbursts:
That it should come to this!
But two months dead! Nay, not so much, not two.
So excellent a king, that was to this
Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth!
Must I remember? Why, she would hang on him
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on; and yet, within a month-
Let me not think on't! Frailty, thy name is woman!-
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she followed my poor father's body
Like Niobe, all tears- why she, even she
(O God! a beast that wants discourse of reason
Would have mourn'd longer) married with my uncle;
My father's brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules. Within a month,
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
The “Happy Family” script gone, what does the world look like to Hamlet now?

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on't! ah, fie! 'Tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely.

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