On Ideological Theory vs. Practice

There’s this irritating refrain we leftists hear from time to time, coming from those on the right side of the aisle, so to speak. Whenever critiques of capitalism are made, a response often heard from the right-wing libertarian crowd is that what is being criticized isn’t ‘real capitalism.’ Instead, the problems of the world (and of the US in particular) are being caused by ‘corporatism,’ or ‘crony capitalism.’ Only the ‘free market’ is ‘real capitalism.’

I have already debunked this nonsense in previous posts, on many occasions, so the reader can go to those if he or she is interested; I don’t wish to go through the annoyance of rehashing those arguments in detail here. The point is, as far as this post is concerned, that there is a huge difference between the ‘free market’ in theory and how it works out in practice.

Of course, the right-winger will retort by saying, ‘Well, what about communism and socialism, you hypocrite? Those ideas all sound good on paper, but when put into practice, one hundred million people were murdered by power-hungry dictators! Everybody knows that socialism has been a failure everywhere it’s been tried!’

Oh, sure. Do you know what else? Iraq really possessed WMDs, Gaddafi really oppressed his people and thus had to be removed, Assad really bombed, killed, and gassed his own people, Russia hacked the 2016 US election, and Iran‘s bellicosity must be stopped through an invasion.

Really, all of the above is true! I know because the mainstream media told me. They know the facts because the CIA, that paragon of truth-telling, has been enlightening the West ever since the days of the Cold War.

But seriously, all sarcasm aside, there are many leftists, many of them anarchists or other left-libertarians, who argue in a manner paralleling right-libertarians and their twaddle about ‘real capitalism,’ that the USSR, Maoist China, Ho Chi Minh‘s Vietnam, the DPRK, Cuba, and the Eastern Bloc did not, and still do not, practice ‘real communism,’ and for the same reason as that of the right-libertarians–that these Marxist-Leninist states were just that…states. (I used to think that way, too.)

The right-wing libertarians’ idealized abstraction, which they call “free market” capitalism, involves a belief that, without the corrupting influence of the state, capitalists will have a ‘level playing field’ allowing them to compete fairly. (As I’ve stated above, I have refuted these arguments elsewhere.) The idealized abstraction of the left-wing libertarians (or anarchists), on the other hand, involves a belief that a socialist revolution can be more or less immediately followed by full communism: no class distinctions, no centralized state authority, and money is replaced by a gift economy.

More moderately left-wing libertarians would allow for the temporary existence of a state, the dictatorship of the proletariat, which would wither away once all signs of capitalist counter-revolution have been thwarted. No classes, no state, no money.

I have tended towards this more moderate version, though I have in recent years grown even more patient than that. The reason for this need of patience is that thwarting counterrevolution is easier said than done: look at the lessons of the twentieth century to see my meaning.

Ultimately, the achievement of the goal, the idealized abstraction of communist society, should be understood as a process, a gradual flowing ever closer towards the ideal, rather than an immediately achieved utopian stasis.

The objection will still be raised: “But the socialists never achieved anything but tyranny and murder!” Now, I must give such readers a history lesson, free of bourgeois propaganda and lies. (Again, a full debunking of the whole communist death count thing is beyond the scope of this article, so click here for that. For the short explanation, here it is: blame Yezhov and famines, not Stalin or Mao. Furthermore, consider the capitalist death count.)

Remember what Russia was like before the revolution of late 1917. The tsar and capitalists were holding the industrial proletariat and peasants down under a feudalist and bourgeois boot. The provisional government following the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II improved things a bit, but the people were still stuck in an unpopular war the provisional government didn’t want to get out of. Lenin, however, got them out of it.

The USSR enshrined equal rights for women in their constitution early into its existence, allowing equal rights in education, employment, access to high-ranking positions in the government, and paid maternity leave. All of these rights had been established by the 1930s, light years ahead of such improvements in the capitalist West.

Improvements were made to aim at affordable housing for everyone. Granted, these homes weren’t exactly palatial, but so what? Even the worst quality homes were much better than the epidemic of homelessness seen today in such cities as San Francisco, Los Angeles, London, Dublin, or Toronto, often with people living in tents.

Full employment was provided, as well as free education up to the university level (sure beats student debt, doesn’t it?), and free healthcare. With such benefits as these, it’s easy to see why majorities of not only Russians, but also other east European countries look back at their socialist pasts with smiles, and generally tend to regret the switch back to capitalism.

Benefits similar to these given to citizens of the USSR were also given to people in all the other socialist states, benefits that already, and all by themselves, justify the left-wing revolutions that occurred, even without the withering away of the state that those in the libertarian camp (right and left) so fetishize. But what was so impressive about the USSR doesn’t stop there.

Returning to my point above about what Russia was like before the revolution of over a hundred years ago, the Bolsheviks inherited a largely agrarian society, with mostly peasant farmers living off the land, at the mercy of Mother Nature. If there were bad harvests (which often happened), people would starve.

The implementation of Stalin’s three Five Year Plans in the 1930s changed all that. Rapid industrialization (in large part to prepare for a Nazi invasion), collectivization of agriculture (to end the exploitive rule of the grain-hoarding, wealthy, land-owning kulaks), which included getting the mechanized farming equipment needed to end the famines (which, by the way, makes nonsense of the absurd Holodomor hoax), and the acquisition of nuclear weapons (in defence against the American nuclear threat) all brought Russia from being a backward nation to a modern nuclear superpower in a matter of not much more than two decades! Impressive.

Next, we need to remember who the real heroes of WWII were: not so much the late-arriving US and Britain, as mainstream history books would have you believe, but Stalin’s Red Army. Their commitment to justice is what saved the world from fascism, not the mere inter-imperialist conflict of Hitler and Mussolini on one side, and FDR and Churchill on the other.

Jump ahead almost two decades later, and we have even more impressive Soviet feats: the first man in space, the first woman in space, and even the first dog to orbit the Earth. Also, the Soviets did the first spacewalk. So, what is all this nonsense about socialism ‘not working‘? Actually, when you think about it, it makes a lot of sense to believe that when people cooperate, work together, and help each other, they will achieve a lot more than all those mutually alienated people competing with each other under capitalism.

This leads me to my next point: right-wing libertarians like to believe that an unregulated market–somehow, by the magical waving of an invisible hand–regulates itself and makes life good; and therefore a state-planned economy lacks the rich growth and innovation of the “free market.” Again, the USSR’s history debunks this claim.

As I said above, the Soviet Union went from being a backward agrarian society to a fully industrialized, nuclear superpower in a matter of a few decades. The Western capitalist countries went through this process much more slowly (i.e., starting from the Industrial Revolution). When the Soviet Union began industrializing around 1928, Western countries like the US and UK were already fully industrialized, so it isn’t fair to compare the USSR’s development to that of the USA. A comparison of the USSR to most of the rest of the non-Anglo-American, non-European world would be more apropos.

Over those few decades between the late 1920s and the early 1950s, the USSR shot ahead of the Third World. Though behind the West economically, the USSR was catching up. The West was feeling threatened, especially with the loss of face the US felt when the Soviets beat them into space. Indeed, the US took a few leaves from the Soviet book and started using more government-funded forms of technological innovation (e.g., NASA, DARPA) and social welfare–though in a capitalist context, of course–to save face and resist the threat of communist revolution in the West.

Economic growth was slowing down in the USSR during the Brezhnev years, but it was still happening. There were fears that, if left unchecked, the USSR would soon overtake the West economically. So by the 1980s, the Carter/Reagan administrations’ strategy was, through the arms race, the Soviet-Afghan War, etc., to drain the Soviet economy.

It worked. The USSR was forced into focusing its budget on the military when they’d have much preferred to continue building socialism. The USSR didn’t “collapse” in late 1991; it was dissolved, thanks to schemers inside and outside the Soviet Union.

Here’s the thing: if socialism ‘doesn’t work,’ why did the West (and why does it, vis-à-vis Cuba, Venezuela, and the DPRK, continue to) put so much effort into draining the socialist states of their lifeblood through economic sanctions, sabotage, etc.? Why not just be a little patient and let these ‘failed’ economic systems self-destruct of their own accord, over a presumably short time?

Despite the crippling sanctions and economic embargoes, the DPRK and Cuba are, within reason, still surviving…and that’s all the way from the wholesale destruction wrought by US imperialism during the Korean War, and from such things as the over six hundred attempts on Fidel Castro’s life, to the present. If the “free market” is so superior to state planning, how did China go from being a Third World country to the second largest economy in the world in a mere four decades?

So we see here that, even though the ideal of communist society–a classless, stateless society without money–was never attained, the progress made towards that ideal in the building of socialism is proof enough that it’s worth striving for. The practice of developing the socialist mode of production, and the benefits obtained, justify the effort even if the theoretical end wasn’t attained.

As for the failures and difficulties that inevitably were a part of this process, many, if not most, of these problems can be blamed on imperialism. The capitalist class has been ruthless in its attempts to thwart the development of socialism, right from the Paris Commune up to the present day. Such things as the Russian Civil War of 1917-1922, properly understood as an invasion by several capitalist countries to help the Russian bourgeoisie restore their rule, put pressures on Lenin’s government that forced the Bolsheviks to become authoritarian.

Similar pressures were exerted on Maoist China, the Eastern Bloc, and the other socialist states, necessitating authoritarian rule, the aggravation of class struggle under socialism. And who was–and still is–doing the pressuring? All those forces that regard the ‘freedom’ of capitalism as their ideal. If, according to right-libertarian thinking, the US isn’t–and has scarcely, if ever been–‘truly capitalist,’ then why were they so adamant about stopping the spread of communism during the Cold War?

Let’s now look at how the abstract ideal of the “free market,” though never perfectly attained, of course (because it never can be–even some right-wingers admit this!), has nonetheless been approached, step by step, in the process including tax cuts for the rich, union-busting, deregulation, and cuts to social programs and welfare.

The oil crisis of 1973 caused many at the time to believe that Keynesian economics–a form of capitalism with intensive government interventions whenever there were economic crises–had run its course. Economists like Milton Friedman argued for minimal state involvement in the economy, as had Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, etc. Pinochet‘s government, which in 1973 forced “free market” capitalism on Chile, by the way, was portrayed in right-wing media as having brought about prosperity for the country, when in fact only the ruling class was doing well.

This kind of ‘prosperity’ encouraged the market fundamentalists to apply their dogmas to Western countries, in which the ruling classes were growing weary of paying high taxes and having regulations limit their profits. The stage was set for Reagan, Thatcher, et al, who busted unions and cut taxes for the rich. The process of gradually moving towards a “free market” had begun.

Reagan, of course, claimed ‘government is the problem,’ though even more obviously he did not shrink it. He deregulated and cut the rich’s taxes, to be sure, but his increase of defence spending only bloated the US government. This bloating, all the same, doesn’t disprove the existence of capitalism in the US, for this was the bloating of the bourgeois state. Note that in capitalism, there is deregulating and re-regulating, depending on the convenience of the capitalist. (And incidentally, in the US, there is private property; in the US, businesses produce commodities for profit; ergo, the US is a capitalist country…even if it isn’t the kind of capitalism the right-libertarians prefer.)

Right-wing libertarians have this absurd notion that the state per se is socialist, when in fact the state has been used by people of all political persuasions to further their agendas: fascists, “free market” capitalists (yes, them too!), social democrats, conservatives, liberals, and actual socialists.

Americans have been so indoctrinated by bourgeois propaganda that they think that all of the Orwellian things we’ve seen plaguing the US (the media as propaganda arm of the government, the state helping the rich get richer and leaving the poor to get poorer, the endless wars, the militarized police, surveillance, etc.) is the result of “communists” infiltrating the US. Oh, would that it were true!

What right-wing libertarians don’t understand is that capitalism is not the utopia they think it is. It’s an inherently contradictory, unstable economic system, given to financial crises about every ten years (indeed, we’re due for another one any time now, I contemplate with a due sense of exhaustion and dread).

Though the USSR’s economy stagnated during the Brezhnev years, their economy had soldiered on through the 1930s, just as the capitalist world was mired in the Great Depression. Similarly, as we in the West reeled for years after the 2008 global financial crisis, only ever so slowly crawling out of it, China–with its state-planned economy–bounced back and has continued to grow into the powerhouse it is today.

In sum: the ideological theory of socialism was meant to lead to a communist society that never materialized; still, in practice, the building of socialism in the twentieth century had successes that, outside imperialist interference, outweighed its problems, and therefore, socialism in practice was justified.

As for the ideological theory of the “free market,” that stateless capitalist utopia has never been, and will never be; while in practice, what is properly called neoliberalism has very much happened, and the appalling income inequality, imperialist wars, and all the other attendant miseries have shown how bankrupt that right-wing ideology is.

So, the left’s solution to current problems is, “More socialism!”, which, if carried far enough, might one day actually lead to the withering away of the state. Their ‘solution,’ on the other hand, is, “More free market!”, which will, if carried far enough, lead to the withering away of our Earth as we know it.

I wonder if it’s ever occurred to the free marketeers that their invisible hand isn’t seen because it isn’t there.

Analysis of ‘Casablanca’

Casablanca is a 1942 drama film/love story directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Paul Henreid, and featuring Claude Rains, Peter Lorre, Conrad Veidt, Dooley Wilson, and Sydney Greenstreet. Based on the play, Everybody Comes to Rick’s (which was written by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison), the movie is considered one of the greatest of all time.

Here are some famous quotes:

“Round up the usual suspects.” –Captain Renault (Rains)

“Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By‘.” –Ilsa Lund (Bergman) [Often misquoted as “Play it again, Sam.”]

“Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.” –Rick Blaine (Bogart), to Ilsa

“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” –Rick, of Ilsa

“I stick my neck out for nobody.” –Rick (said several times)

“I have no conviction, if that’s what you mean.  I blow with the wind, and the prevailing wind happens to be from Vichy.” –Renault

“My dear Rick, when will you realize that in this world today, isolationism is no longer a practical policy?” –Signor Ferrari (Greenstreet)

“If we stop breathing, we’ll die. If we stop fighting our enemies, the world will die.” –Victor Laszlo (Henreid)

“We’ll always have Paris.” –Rick, to Ilsa

“Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of. Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.” –Rick

“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” –Rick

Refugees hope to escape Nazi-occupied, war-torn Europe and get to the US through politically-neutral Lisbon. Most can’t get there directly, so instead they go from Paris to Marseille, then to Oran, Algeria, then finally to Casablanca, in French Morocco.

Casablanca is a hellhole to these refugees. They find it virtually impossible to scrounge up the money to buy the coveted exit visas to Lisbon. It’s as though Dante‘s sign at the entrance to the Inferno were moved to Casablanca’s entrance.

Casablanca thus symbolizes the snare of poverty most of the world can’t escape, especially those in the Third World. Some, like Ugarte (Lorre), are so desperate to escape that they’ll resort to murder to get the money they need to pay for a visa.

Captain Renault is an appropriate prefect of police in Vichy-controlled Casablanca, for he’s unabashedly corrupt, often taking advantage of pretty young women desperate for a visa. He represents Vichy France, who were Nazi collaborators during World War II.

Richard “Rick” Blaine is the American owner of a night club called “Rick’s Café Americain.” He’s cynical and cold, refusing to drink with customers. The casino’s games are fixed to ensure that Renault, who never pays for his drinks, always wins. Thus, between Rick’s alienating of others and Renault’s control over Rick’s business, we see the two men personifying state capitalism.

Rick has some redeeming qualities, though. We learn that he ran guns to Ethiopia during the Second Italo-Ethiopian War, and fought on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War. He’ll redeem himself again, as will even Renault (well…sort of), at the end of the film. So Rick, as a capitalist, is more of a liberal one, loosely comparable with Orwell, who also fought against fascism in Spain, then grew disillusioned with the left.

The idealized hero of the film, though, is Victor Laszlo, the Czechoslovakian leader of an underground resistance against the Nazis. That resistance was historically connected with the Soviet Union, incidentally…not that a bourgeois Hollywood movie would ever admit to such an association, of course. Laszlo, dressed in an off-white suit, has a saintly, if dully stoic, aura about him; his unending, virtuous fight against fascism makes him seem other-worldly, almost…too good to be true. That scar on his forehead seems to be his only fault, physical or otherwise.

Since Rick has his good, idealistic side, how has he become so embittered and cynical? Back in Paris, he had a love affair with the beautiful Ilsa Lund (Bergman), not knowing she was Laszlo’s wife! The husband had been in a concentration camp, and she thought he’d died trying to escape, so she had an affair with Rick. When she learned Laszlo was alive, she left Rick without an explanation, for fear he’d follow her and endanger himself in the flight from the occupying Nazis. Rick thus got on a train to Marseille with Sam (Wilson), with an unused ticket for Ilsa, and with a broken heart.

Ilsa thus represents the beauty of that ideal both Laszlo and Rick have fought for; because she left Rick, he’s lost his idealism and become a politically neutral, cynical man who ‘sticks his neck out for nobody.’

Many who, in their youth, fight passionately for an ideal, such as freedom from fascism, equality, socialism, etc., later grow cynical and bitter because they fail to understand that fighting for such ideals involves sacrificing one’s selfish desires for the greater good. This is what has happened to Rick, and this self-centredness is what he must overcome. Indeed, sacrifice is the main theme of the film.

One such a sacrifice occurs among the minor characters, when a young Bulgarian woman (played by Joy Page) who, it is implied (defying the strict censorship of the Production Code of the 1940s), has slept with Renault behind her husband’s back in hopes of getting a visa in return. She, with guilty tears in her eyes as she asks Rick for help, has sacrificed her loyalty to her husband, and to Church morality, for freedom.

Rick’s late intervention to fight fascism and make the ultimate sacrifice (something Laszlo’s been doing from the beginning) makes him the film’s personification of the US, which stayed out of World War II until the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. People in the West knew for years what a problem Hitler was, but did little to check his growing power; for the West was hoping the Nazis would succeed in invading and crushing the USSR. Incidentally, the USSR’s sacrifice (between 25 and 30 million Soviet Russians died) in defeating fascism is given short shrift in Western history.

Laszlo, at one point in the film, knowing of Rick’s love for Ilsa, is even willing to let the American use the letters of transit to take his wife to the US, since her safety is all-important to him. This is the length to which Laszlo will go to sacrifice all that he has to ensure the safety of his wife, the lovely personification of the ideal of freedom.

But in the end, it is Rick who makes the sacrifice, insisting that Renault write Laszlo’s and Lund’s names on the letters of transit. Rick sacrifices his enjoyment of the ideal so others can be free. Even unscrupulous Renault joins Rick in the end to join the struggle of the Free French in Brazzaville.

Now, what must be emphasized is that this fight for liberty must be understood in its proper bourgeois context. The film was released in a rush to capitalize on the Allied invasion of North Africa, to stir up American patriotism. And the Western powers’ real motives for fighting the Nazis weren’t as noble as they may have seemed.

As it says in the ‘Writers Without Money’ critique of the film, “Indeed, early in the war, Churchill and Roosevelt seemed more concerned with retrieving France’s and Britain’s old colonial empire in North Africa than about liberating western Europe from the Nazis.” This is how we should think about Renault’s joining the Free French; it’s not much of a redemption for him. Both Rick and Renault, as personifications of their respective countries, are mainly concerned with their nations’ class/power interests.

Consider Rick’s and Ilsa’s relationship with Sam, the only black character in the movie, and one clearly in a subordinate position. Rick claims that Sam gets 25% of the profits, and Rick makes Signor Ferrari promise to continue giving Sam the 25% when Rick leaves Casablanca (…and will he keep the promise, I wonder? After all, Ferrari understands Sam gets only 10%!); but given how Sam’s popularity as a piano man, singer, and bandleader is practically the lifeblood of the success of Rick’s Café Americain (as against Rick’s coldness to customers), shouldn’t he get 50%, if not much more? If Rick and Sam are such good friends, shouldn’t they be co-owners of the night club? Rick personifies the US in more ways than one.

During Sam’s singing of the song “Shine,” when he sings, “because my hair is curly,” he strokes his hair with a grin, as if glad to internalize the racism of the time. Later, when Ferrari hopes to have Sam work for him, even willing to pay Sam twice the salary Rick pays him, Sam says he doesn’t have the time even to spend Rick’s salary…oh, really? Why not use the money to get an exit visa and go back to the US? It’s almost as if…he is owned…by Rick. Of course, Ferrari wouldn’t mind owning Sam himself.

How deferential Sam is to Rick, Ilsa, and all the other white characters makes one think of the Jim Crow years, which is oddly out of place in North Africa, where there were not only anti-fascist, but also the beginning of anti-colonial, rumblings at the time. Surely expatriate Sam has noticed how the African times, they are a-changin’, but he never gives an opinion about something that should give him high hopes. But maybe that’s just the point.

On top of all of this is how Ilsa, much younger than Sam, refers to him as “the boy who’s playing the piano,” when she knew him personally back when they were with Rick in Paris. So as a personification of that ideal of freedom, Ilsa is only a conventional, bourgeois, and white liberal form, the kind that 1940s Hollywood would have cherished.

Similarly, as mentioned above, her husband, Laszlo, is only dully virtuous; he lacks the revolutionary fervour of the Red Army, who did the majority of the work in ridding Europe of Nazis. Laszlo’s singing of La Marseillaise, as impassioned as it is, hardly compensates for his ‘nice guys finish last’ kind of blandness.

Thus, both Laszlo and Lund represent bourgeois ideals of sex roles in the fight for liberty: him, dull protective Christian stoicism; her, passive, timid beauty…and this was at a time when armed women had fought fascists during the Spanish Civil War a mere three to six years before the making of Casablanca.

And so, Casablanca the city is truly a prison for all living in it. Those film noir shadows–as well as the window blinds, whose shadows showing on characters’ faces look like prison bars–are symbolic examples of indications that, in spite of, or rather, because of, the bourgeois nature of this Hollywood production, the true political problems of the time creep out in the form of Freudian slips, as it were, and expose themselves.

Many on the left will condemn this film as intolerably reactionary, and so the near-universal praise Casablanca has garnered over the years is in many ways just the bourgeois establishment giving itself a pat on the back. Imagine, on the other hand, a socialist Casablanca, with an unapologetically leftist Laszlo, and a militarily-trained Ilsa who won’t stop at just pointing a pistol at someone in her way. Imagine a Sam with dignity. Imagine an anti-fascist struggle willing to go further, and also defeat Franco, the right-wing government in ‘neutralLisbon, and the Nazis on the Eastern Front, actually aiding the Soviets!

Well, we can’t expect much from Hollywood, especially not in the 1940s, even though Curtiz would soon direct the pro-Stalin Mission To Moscow. When you think about it, though, the Casablanca we have is politically appropriate, not for the ‘liberty’ it espouses, but ironically for the sham liberty it actually presents.

I’d say it’s useful to see a movie that pretends to be all liberal and freedom-loving, yet a movie that is also clumsy enough to let the cat out of the bag often enough for attentive viewers to notice the con game being played on them. This is useful because that’s the liberal con game played before us every day in the West.

“The freedom of the Americas” is never seen because it never really existed; the US is a country founded not on liberty, but on slavery, discrimination, class antagonism, and the genocide of the aboriginals; it thus can only make a myth out of liberty, a ‘liberty’ that put Japanese-Americans in internment camps during World War II. The building of socialism in the USSR, on the other hand, is never seen because the bourgeoisie would never want us to see it.

Sam is said to get 25% of the profits, but probably only gets 10%, if that. The wife of a freedom fighter is only the ‘behind-every-great-man-is-a-great-woman’ kind of wife. The escape route to the US is ‘neutral’ Lisbon, where there’s actually a fascist government. Sexually predatory Renault has a most charming exterior. Ferrari, who has no qualms about buying slaves, seems an affable enough chap. All looks well on the outside.

My point is that it’s important to see the mask before we can remove it. The political faults of Casablanca are its very virtues, for in order to correct those faults, we must be able to find them…faults one will always try to hide.

Like Rick, we are heartbroken to see our ideals so compromised, as they inevitably will be in the world we see around us. A movie like Casablanca is like Ilsa in how beautifully packaged its message of liberty is; yet it disappoints us, as she does Rick. Still, in our disappointment, if we are willing to sacrifice our selfish wants, we can revive our hopes and fight for our ideals…as long as we watch our backs, with snakes like Renault following us.

Analysis of Aeschylus’ ‘Persians’

The Persians is a historical tragedy Aeschylus wrote, and which won first prize in the dramatic competitions in 472 BCE. It is his earliest surviving play, and the only one we have of his based on historical sources, rather than on Greek myth. It tells the story of Xerxes‘ disastrous invasion of Greece, Persia’s second humiliating defeat after the failed attempt by his father, Darius I, to invade Greece.

The translation I’ll be basing this analysis on is a brand new one by Mark Will, which can be found here on Amazon. It’s a literal translation that comes as close as possible to paralleling the poetry of the original Greek. It also includes an excellent introduction that not only explains the historical background of the play, but also, in a timely way, relates imperial Persia’s losses to contemporary concerns, making it a kind of cautionary tale about what the US’s current imperialist excesses will most likely lead to.

Here are some of Will‘s translated lines:

“Oh, wretched me, having met/this loathsome, obscure fate/because a demon savage-mindedly trod upon/the Persian race!” –Xerxes, beginning of Episode 4, page 68, lines 909-912

“My son found sharp the vengeance/of famous Athens, for they did not suffice,/the barbarians whom Marathon destroyed before./Intending to make retribution for them, my son/has caused so great a plethora of calamities.” —Atossa, Episode 1, page 45, lines 473-477

“Groan and mourn,/cry heavy and/heavenly distress!/Strain the sadly wailing,/clamorous, wretched voice!

“Torn by the whirlpool,/they are mangled by the voiceless,/by the children of the undefiled sea!

“And the deprived house mourns/the man of the family, and childless fathers/are demonized by distress,/and old men bewailing/everything perceive pain.” –Chorus, Choral Ode 2, page 49, lines 571-583

Structurally, the play can be divided into four parts: 1) premonitions and fears for the Persian army, as felt by the Chorus of Persian Elders and by Atossa, Darius’ widow queen and King Xerxes’ mother; 2) the calamity of the Persian army’s defeat at the Battle of Salamis, as told by a messenger; 3) the Ghost of Darius’ report of further Persian woe, and counsel not to attempt an invasion of Greece again [lines 790-792]; and 4) Xerxes’ despair when he returns to Susa, his clothes in tatters.

[Bear in mind that my four-way division of the play differs from Will’s, whose Episode 1 combines my parts one and two, as described in the previous paragraph, and his Episode 2 is a speech by Atossa, just before his Episode 3 and my part three, with Darius’ ghost. Each of his Episodes is preceded by a Choral Ode, with strophes, antistrophes, and epodes; whereas I’m dividing the play in terms of thematic contrasts I’ve seen.]

The choral poetry comments on the fortunes of the Persian empire, past and present. We hear of the great glories of Persia’s imperial past, her conquest of Ionia, and the achievements of Darius the Great (Choral Ode 4, pages 66-67).

While it’s more typical in Greek tragedy to start the play with a hubristic character who experiences a sudden reversal of fortune (peripeteia) and a realization (anagnorisis) of some terrible truth, both of these elements propelling the action towards tragedy (e.g., a fall of pride); there seems to be very little of such contrast in The Persians. The flowing of the plot, from beginning to end, seems a sea of undifferentiated sorrow.

Xerxes’ hubris is felt offstage, while he’s creating the pontoon bridges for his army to cross the Hellespont (lines 65-72; also lines 743-750), and when his troops commit sacrilege (lines 809-812) by destroying the images of Greek gods at their temples. This hubris is described by the characters in Susa, where the whole play takes place. Instead of seeing a boastful king, we hear the Chorus expressing their fears, for the Persian army, who at the beginning of the play (lines 8-15, 107-139) have not sent any reports on the progress of the invasion. The Chorus’ pride is only in Persia’s past.

This fear morphs into sorrow from the messenger’s report; then further sorrow from what Darius’ ghost knows of the army’s other misfortunes, coupled with his not-so-comforting advice not to invade Greece again; and finally despairing sorrow on shamed Xerxes’ return. Fear, woe, more woe, and the worst. The whole play is a continuous descent into sadness.

As I’ve said above, Mark Will parallels this Persian woe to the predicted fate of the US’s near future, with–as I would add–the ascent of China and Russia as against American imperialist overreach, with its absurd military overspending and over trillion-dollar debt, a ticking time bomb that will destroy the US sooner than the military-industrial complex expects. Will also asks us to use this play to help us sympathize with Iran (Translator’s Preface, page 11), the modern Persia threatened with invasion from, ironically, the American Persia of today.

While I affirm Mark Will’s parallels to contemporary events as perfectly true and legitimate, I see another parallel between The Persians and the recent past: the decline in Persian might, and its military humiliations, can be compared to those of the Soviet Union in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Hamartia in political leaders should be understood as a warning to them that “missing the mark” can lead to political catastrophes for the nation. Xerxes’ foolish overconfidence in his army and navy leads to missteps and his huge losses. This missing the mark is easily seen in the military misadventures of the US over the past twenty years, as Will observes. I’d say that a missing of the mark (quite an understatement, given the growing treason in the USSR, especially from Khrushchev onwards) is also attributable to Gorbachev‘s mismanagement of Soviet affairs.

A series of woes befell the USSR that parallel those of Xerxes and his army. The US lured the USSR into a war with Afghanistan, a war that was a major factor in the weakening of the socialist state (this is rather like Xerxes being manipulated into planning “this voyage and campaign against Hellas” by “evil men” [lines 753-758]). The USSR’s loss against the mujahideen, who were proxy warriors (including Bin Laden) for the US, was a humiliating defeat comparable to that of Xerxes.

Furthermore, Xerxes’ listening to the Greeks’ plans to flee at night, and taking them at their word (lines 355-371), is comparable to Gorbachev thinking he could negotiate with the US and NATO over whether to open up the Soviet economy to the West, and to allow the reunification of Germany, breaking down the anti-fascist protection Wall. Xerxes’ gullibility caused his humiliating loss at Salamis, as Gorbachev’s caused not only the USSR’s dissolution, but also the eastward advance of NATO.

The Persian loss is considered a momentous turn of events in Western history; for if the Persians had won, the West, some argue, would likely have been inundated with Persian, rather than Greek, culture. Their loss is assumed to have been a good thing, with Greek democracy triumphing over Persian despotism. Certainly Hegel thought so in his Philosophy of History:

“The World-Historical contact of the Greeks was with the Persians; in that, Greece exhibited itself in its most glorious aspect…In the case before us, the interest of the World’s History hung trembling in the balance. Oriental despotism–a world united under one lord and sovereign–on the one side, and separate states–insignificant in extent and resources, but animated by free individuality–on the other side, stood front to front in array of battle. Never in History has the superiority of spiritual power over material bulk–and that of no contemptible amount–been made so gloriously manifest.” (Hegel, pages 256-258)

On closer inspection, however, it can be argued that the Persians under the Achaemenid Dynasty were closer to real democracy than the Greeks. Achaemenid-era Persians had far fewer slaves than Greeks, and Persian women enjoyed far better rights than their Greek counterparts.

This point is especially salient when we parallel it with the propagandistic portrayal of American “democracy,” with its history of racism, slavery, genocide of Native Americans, income inequality, and mass incarceration, as against the USSR‘s having considerably fewer of these evils. Certainly, Paul Robeson felt far more at home in the USSR than in his native US.

Paralleled with the end of Persian hegemony over the region, and thus the liberation of Greece, is the notion that the USSR’s dissolution meant the triumph of American capitalist democracy and “the end of history.” Consider how the rise of neoliberalism under the Clintons, coupled with the near ubiquity of American imperialist war, have shown the lie of this democracy.

With the end of the Achaemenid Dynasty came the rise of Alexander the Great, whose imperialism–justified as a spreading of Greek culture and civilization to the barbarians of the East–parallels American neoconservative arrogance.

The Ghost of Darius advising the Persians not to invade Greece again seems to me like the ghost of Stalin wishing to advise the Soviets of the 1980s to revert to Socialism in One Country, rather than attempt to bring it about in other countries like Afghanistan.

The Messenger, by his own admission, describes only a fraction of the misfortunes that have befallen the Persian army and navy. Though they outnumbered the Greeks, they’ve been mostly destroyed. Most of the survivors have perished on their journey back home, through hunger or thirst (lines 482-491).

Darius’ Ghost also informs the Chorus and Atossa of newer woes. This piling up of one misfortune after another is, on the one hand, a warning of the karmic future of US imperialist overreach, as Will maintains; but on the other hand, as I am arguing, this accumulation of woe is also something that can be paralleled with the growing suffering in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s.

The US and NATO were scheming at how they could bring about the USSR’s downfall. There were shortages of food, which was Gorbachev‘s responsibility. Through the establishment of “free market” economic policies, the traitors in the Russian government privatized and seized state-owned assets, and removed the Soviet social safety net, throwing millions of Russians into poverty and starvation, and allowing the ascendance of Russian oligarchs; and when the people tried to bring back socialism, not only did the US’s puppet, Yeltsin, use violence to stop them, but the US also helped Russia’s extremely unpopular leader get reelected in 1996.

Some have called the suffering of Russians in the 1990s an “economic genocide.” This woe after woe after woe is easily paralleled with Persian suffering in the play. Russians have consistently, in poll after poll, regretted the end of the Soviet system, especially recently. Apart from the lost social services, Russians are nostalgic of when their country was once a great world power; as the Chorus, in their lamentations, reminisce of Persia in Choral Ode 4. Putin is well-known for having said that the fall of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.

So when we get to Xerxes’ return to Susa, with his clothes in tatters, we see the final amalgamation of Persian suffering and despair. Back and forth between him and the Chorus, we hear “Ototototoi!” [Philip Vellacott, page 151], “Ay, ay!” [Will, page 76], and “Woe!” during their exodos from the stage. This quick cutting back and forth of brief one-liners, as opposed to the long speeches heard before, symbolically suggests the psychological fragmentation and disintegration each Persian is experiencing.

We may wonder what the ancient Greek response was to Xerxes’ humiliation. For many, it must have been Schadenfreude to see their oppressors finally brought so low, knowing it really happened: remember Xerxes’ words, line 1034, “Distressing, but a joy to our enemies.” (page 76) Similarly, many on the left, including American socialists, are eagerly awaiting the downfall of the American empire, which some experts say may happen by the 2030s.

There’s also a sympathetic reading of the play, though, in which one pities the Persians; and after all, the whole point of tragedy is to arouse pity and terror, as well as to bring about the catharsis of those emotions. At least some Greeks in the audience must have felt that pity for Xerxes and Atossa, or else how could the play have won first prize in 472 BCE?

Certainly, we leftists can pity the Russians, who lost their great Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Neither I nor many leftists agree with Reagan’s projection that the USSR was an “evil empire”; though Maoists, during the time of the Sino-Soviet split, thought it was an empire. I see the USSR rather as a check against imperialism, though a flawed one.

In the end, we can see my paralleling of the play with modern problems, in a dialectical sense, with Will’s paralleling. And his thesis, with my negation, can undergo a sublation to give a deeper message about US imperialism: it destroys any attempts to end its evil, causing oceans of woe; then it will destroy itself, bringing karmic woe on itself.

Evil empire, indeed.

Aeschylus, Persians, a new translation by Mark Will, Cadmus and Harmony Media, 2018

Analysis of ‘Caligula’

Introduction

Caligula is an erotic historical drama film made in 1979, based on the rise and fall of Gaius Caesar, and starring Malcolm McDowell, Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud, Helen Mirren, Teresa Ann Savoy, Paolo Bonacelli, Guido Mannari (his English dub voice done by Patrick Allen), and John Steiner. It was produced by Bob Guccione for Penthouse magazine, in an attempt to fuse a feature film narrative, with high production values, with the explicit, unsimulated sex scenes of pornographic films.

Gore Vidal produced a screenplay for the film, for which Tinto Brass was the original director, but both of them disowned the film after constant fighting and a falling out. Guccione added hardcore pornographic content, which with the violence of many scenes resulted in a film that created a storm of controversy on its release. Accordingly, the uncut movie was, and still is, banned in many countries.

Here are some quotes from the film:

“I have existed from the morning of the world and I shall exist until the last star falls from the night. Although I have taken the form of Gaius Caligula, I am all men as I am no man, and therefore I am a god.” –Caligula (McDowell)

Caligula: Tell me, how is the emperor?

Nerva (Gielgud): Old, like me.

Caligula: I mean, how is his mood?

Nerva: Like the weather.

Caligula: The weather is good today!

Nerva: Changeable.

*********

Caligula: You are a god, lord.

Tiberius (O’Toole): No I’m not, not even when I am dead.

Caligula: Julius Caesar and Augustus Caesar, they are gods.

Tiberius: So say the senate, and so the people prefer to believe. Such myths are useful.

*********

Nerva: For a man to choose the hour of his own death is the closest he will ever come to tricking fate, and fate decrees that when you die, Macro will kill me.

Tiberius: I’ll arrest him and have him executed.

Nerva: You can’t. He controls you. [Looks at Caligula] Anyway, even with Macro dead, how could I go on living with this reptile?

*********

“If only all Rome had just one neck!” –Caligula

“You see how I have exhausted myself to make your wedding holy. My blessings to you both.” –Caligula, after raping Livia and fisting her groom, Proculus

“As if there ever could be an antidote against Caesar!” –Caligula, after having Gemellus arrested for treason (because the boy’s breath smelled of medicine…a poison antidote?)

*********

Caesonia (Mirren): They hate you now.

Caligula: Let them hate me, so long as they fear me.

Caesonia: They are senators and consuls. They are important men.

Caligula: So important that they approve all I do? They must be mad. I don’t know what else to do to provoke them.

Despite Caligula now being a cult classic, as well as the performances of McDowell, O’Toole, Gielgud, and Mirren being praised, it always has been critically derided…which leads me to my next point…

Why Analyze Caligula, of all Films?

Normally, I write up film or literary analyses of classics, or works otherwise considered ‘great’ in some sense. Now, I’m about to analyze something of the (dialectical?) opposite: a film widely considered among the worst ever made.

Why? Have I, like the Gaius Caesar of legend and rumour, flipped my lid? Am I ascribing immortal, divine status to a film generally deemed a monstrous travesty, like the man the movie’s about? I’ll answer the last two questions in reverse order: no, and I certainly hope not.

As for the first question, here is my answer. There’s something about the movie, in spite of (or rather, because of) its many flaws, that makes it a perfect representation of today’s political world.

I’m going beyond the obvious theme of the corruption of power, as well as beyond a rationalization that the pornographic aspects of the film symbolize the obscenity of all this political corruption. My point is that this movie is a sensationalization of the crueller moments of history for the sake of titillation, the same way much of the reporting of current events is meant more to entertain than to inform. These shocks are a distraction from the real evil of class antagonisms, past and present.

You’ve heard of ‘fake news.’ Now, let’s read about fake history.

An Ahistorical Historical Drama

Any serious historian knows that Tiberius and Caligula, as bad and hated as they were during and immediately following their reigns, were nonetheless nowhere near as depraved, perverted, or mad as they are portrayed in the writings of Tacitus and Suetonius, the latter’s Twelve Caesars especially being, in my opinion at least, little more than glorified gossip. So when Guccione (in the documentary ‘Making of Caligula‘) tried to justify the excesses in his film as necessary to give an “historically accurate” portrayal of the wickedness of these two emperors, you know he was being as ignorant as he was being pretentious.

Now, this Penthouse production was of course not the first one to take Tacitus and Suetonius at their word. The author of I, Claudius, Robert Graves, was known for his scholarly but mischievous renderings of historical events; when he wrote the historical novel (and its sequel, Claudius the God), while he tried his best to remain true to the narrative of Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio, he also felt free to invent wherever the historical record was doubtful. The dramatically superb (though low-budget) BBC miniseries of 1976 that was based on his books sometimes played fast and loose with the history in ways that went beyond even Graves’s own indulgences (compare Graves, page 342, to the end of this I, Claudius episode).

Let’s now consider the excesses that Caligula and Tiberius have been accused of. First, the notion that Caligula committed incest with his sisters, especially Drusilla, is highly doubtful. Roman historians often slandered the emperors they hated with claims of sexual perversity or madness.

Young Gaius grew up watching his family members taken from him, one by one: his father, Germanicus, died when Caligula was a boy; his mother, Agrippina, was banished by Tiberius to the island of Pandateria, where she starved herself to death (G.P. Baker, page 277); his brother, Nero, was also banished (to Ponza), and his brother, Drusus, was imprisoned for treason and left there to starve to death, reduced to chewing the stuffing of his bed (Baker, page 276). Gaius’ sisters were all he had left of his immediate family–it’s only natural that he’d have been more than usually close to them, but in the normal, loving sense. Anything beyond such closeness is gossip.

“With his brothers and parents dead, and without a compatible wife, it might be expected that Caligula would have looked for affection from his three sisters. The enormous favours that he heaped on them at the beginning of his reign had a political purpose, but they also suggest considerable affection within the family. It was doubtless this affection that led to the stories of incest with all three sisters. Such reports are to be treated with scepticism. Suetonius claims that Caligula was actually caught with Drusilla when they were staying at Antonia‘s house, but admits that the story was hearsay. Neither Seneca nor Philo, contemporaries of Caligula who both adopt a highly moral tone, make any mention of incest. Also when Tacitus deals with Agrippina‘s incestuous designs on her son, the emperor Nero, he makes no hint of any improper relationship with her brother–although the context was certainly appropriate–and attributes her moral corruption to her association with Lepidus. The charge of incest has been traditionally levelled against despots, from antiquity to Napoleon.” (Barrett, page 85)

Tiberius was accused of being a lecherous old goat of a man, yielding to such vices as child molestation. Again, it’s mere rumour, with Suetonius giving all kinds of salacious details (Suetonius, ‘Tiberius’ 43-45). The fact is, old Tiberius lived out the remainder of his years on the isle of Capri, unmarried (Augustus forced him to divorce his beloved Vipsania to marry Julia [Baker, page 51], from whom he later separated [page 66]) and alone, brooding over his son Drusus‘ murder by two-faced Sejanus (Baker, pages 268-269), among the few people whom Tiberius had once trusted; the emperor even called Sejanus “the partner of my labours” (Tacitus, pages 157-197). He should have been in Rome, managing the affairs of state: what was the old man doing on Capri? Behaving as some lechers do with underage girls in Thailand and Cambodia today?

Was Caligula’s claim to be a god evidence of madness? A man speaking of himself in such a way today would have been such proof, but not so much a king or emperor in the ancient pagan world. It was a fairly common practice to deify ‘good’ emperors, even to have temples dedicated to them when they were alive. (See Barrett, Chapter 9, ‘Divine Honours,’ pages 140-153; in particular, “Among the Romans the distinction between man and god was not a sharp one. While this blurring is usually associated with the phenomenon of emperor worship in the Imperial age, its origins go back to the republic.”–page 140)

What of his making his horse, Incitatus, a senator? Again, a mere legend. If he did so, he may have meant it as one of his many insults to the senate, not out of a mad belief that his horse had a senator’s abilities.

And Caligula’s occasional cross-dressing? Did that indicate madness? Apart from how offensive such a judgement is today in light of the experience of the transgender community, Barrett notes, “Caligula certainly did have a predilection for dressing up, as Alexander, as a triumphator, even as a woman. To dress up as a god was a natural progression. Suetonius mentions his dressing up as gods or goddesses in the general context, not of his religious ideas, but of his exotic costumes, and Dio notes that dressing up as Jupiter was a front adopted to seduce numerous women. Such behaviour was not unique to Caligula.” (Barrett, page 146) Furthermore, Josephus claimed that Caligula’s apparent devotion to the goddess Isis involved dressing up in women’s clothing and a wig…to perform as a priest of Isis (Barrett, page 220).

Then there was Caligula’s bizarre invasion of Britain, apparently to collect seashells. Again, Barrett notes, “This episode has provided much grist for the scholarly mill. Most scholars assume that a real invasion was planned, but cancelled at the last minute. [One scholar suggested]…that the Britons united in the face of attack, while…[another scholar claimed, perhaps] the soldiers were simply afraid to undertake the crossing of the Channel, and that the emperor ordered them to pick up the shells as a form of humiliation, which, to say the least, would have been a courageous gesture on Caligula’s part.” (Barrett, page 135)

Anyway, to make a long story short (if it’s not too late), the corruption in power in ancient imperial Rome wasn’t all that much more shocking than it is today: the rich and powerful oppress and exploit the poor. As Marx said in The Communist Manifesto, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

In today’s world, that class contradiction is between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the oppression being in the form of wage slavery. In the ancient world, class conflict was between masters and their slaves. Though the forms of class war have changed over the centuries, the basic material conditions remain the same: the land-owning rich get away with the enslavement, rape, and murder of the poor. This contradiction must be seen beyond the veil of sensationalism seen in Caligula.

The Beginning of the Movie

It’s ironic that such a sinful film should begin with a quote from The Gospel According to Mark, 8:36: “…what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

We see Caligula and Drusilla (Savoy) openly displaying their incestuous love out in the country, near a shepherd and his sheep. Apart from what I said above, about the dubiousness of the classical sources on this brother/sister relationship, given the particularly strong taboo against incest in the ancient world (consider the Oedipus story, for example), we should find it most unlikely that they would risk revealing their forbidden love to anyone they know fortuitously passing by the scene.

Mixed in with some original music composed by ‘Paul Clemente’ is an excerpt from the Adagio love theme of Spartacus and Phrygia, from Aram Khachaturian‘s Spartacus ballet. This theme is used repeatedly, at sporadic moments, throughout the film. Also featured is the “Montagues and Capulets” (or, alternatively, the “Dance of the Knights“) theme (during the credits), from Sergei Prokofiev‘s Romeo and Juliet ballet.

In all likelihood, these famous themes (from two of the most famous of the Soviet composers, incidentally) were chosen only for the emotional force of the music, and without any thought for their programmatic content. Indeed, that programmatic content seems diametrically (or dialectically?) opposed to the content of the movie’s story. Still, I find it irresistible to find some kind of connection–however consciously unintended, however dialectically antithetical–between the music and the movie.

The Spartacus ballet is about the lawful love between its title character, the once King of Thrace, and his once queen, Phrygia, who have been conquered and enslaved by Crassus. Antithetically, there’s the taboo love between Caligula and Drusilla, he originally being a prince fearful for his life–because of Tiberius’ caprices–then ascending to absolute power. Finally, while at the end of the ballet, Spartacus dies (having tried to free the slaves) and Phrygia mourns him, Drusilla dies and Caligula mourns her (but rather than try to free the slaves, he just insults and offends the other men in power until they get sick of him and kill him).

The “Montagues and Capulets” theme is meant to dramatize the tension and hatred between the two feuding families in Romeo and Juliet, as well as that hate between Caligula and the Roman senate. If, Dear Reader, you’ll indulge and forgive my deforming of the Bard’s immortal opening verses, you’ll see how one can relate the thematic content of the greatest love story with, arguably, one of the most outrageously depicted (if not simply one of the worst) love stories.

“Two classes, both alike in dignity,/In fairest Roma where we lay our scene…” By classes, here I refer to the conflict between the imperial family (i.e., the Julio-Claudian dynasty) and the senatorial class.

Another reading (and another butchering of the Bard, if again you’ll pardon me, Dear Reader) could be, “Two classes, both unlike in dignity,/In fairest Roma where we lay our scene…” By classes, I now refer to the conflict between the masters (i.e., imperial family, consuls, senate, patricians, plebs) and their slaves. This second conflict, often bobbing up to the surface from the hidden depths, is the one I urge you to pay more attention to.

Classes Unlike in Dignity

Just as I argued in my Analysis of The Omen, the violence in Caligula (as well as the sex) can be seen to symbolize the material contradictions between master and slave in the ancient world, contradictions as apparent as those between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat today. The slaves in the film, typically naked, are exploited in sexual situations, beaten, or subjected to other forms of sadism. Caligula is like Salò (in which Paolo Bonacelli also appeared) in this respect, except for the problem of the clashing visions of feuding Guccione, Vidal, and Brass, among so many other obvious issues.

Nakedness for the slaves represents their vulnerability and utter lack of possessions. I recall Act IV, Scene vii of Hamlet, when the Danish prince has returned, surprisingly, from a boat trip to England, and in a letter to his uncle Claudius, Hamlet says he’s “naked.” He doesn’t mean he isn’t wearing any clothes; he means he hurried off the boat without belongings or means, for a pirate ship has attacked his boat, and the pirates are holding him for ransom. (See Crystal and Crystal, page 292)

When Caligula arrives in Capri, we see a row of male slaves with hammers breaking rocks into smaller pieces–these men are all naked. At first glance, we’d assume that seeing all these musclemen frontally nude is just one of many examples of the film’s soft-core, indulgent titillation; but consider what I said above about naked slaves.

This observation is especially true of the naked slaves Tiberius uses as his “speaking statues,” who “do more than speak…they do.” What they “do” is engage in all the acts of debauchery that the classical sources spuriously accuse the emperor of indulging in.

Then, there are Tiberius’ “fishies,” the naked swimmers–with shaved pubes–in his large swimming pool; his “minnows,” as Suetonius claimed the emperor called them, are supposed to be the children he molested. Again, as history, there’s no reason to believe this sexual abuse was true of Tiberius in particular; but in a world where masters could do anything they wanted with their slaves–including getting sexual favours from them and getting away scot-free without even an investigation to be then acquitted of–there is merit in using the myth of Tiberius the pervert in a metaphorical sense.

Classes Alike in Dignity

As the emperor–covered in welts, sores, and scabs from all of the sexually transmitted diseases he’s said to have been covered in (another obvious symbol of his moral corruption–Howard, page 57)–talks with Caligula and corrupts his mind with a tour of his speaking, screwing statues, he warns the prince of the wickedness of the senate. Recall the many treason trials in which Tiberius had men executed on trumped-up charges from Sejanus; this is where the emperor got his cynicism about Roman politics.

Of course, slaves weren’t the only sufferers of the whims of those at the top. Wrongly-convicted senators suffered, as did soldiers (in the film, consider loyal Proculus, or the misfortunes of Roman virtue; also consider the guard Tiberius kills for being suspected of drinking wine while on duty).

Finally, even the men at the top suffer. In the movie, Macro strangles Tiberius in his bed (other versions have the emperor smothered with a pillow by Macro [<<<John Rhys-Davies] or Caligula [<<<John McEnery…at 36:00). Caligula was assassinated in a conspiracy led by Cassius Chaerea (Bonacelli), Claudius was fed poisoned mushrooms by Agrippina, and Nero committed suicide when he fell from power.

The fall from power of those at the top reminds us of Hegel‘s master/slave dialectic. Caligula, with Macro’s help, rose against his master to become the new master, as Spartacus attempted to do. Caligula’s constant provocations of the senate and army represent the power struggle between them and his family, ultimately leading them to kill him, as Spartacus was killed.

My point is that, in spite of the emperor’s ‘absolute’ power, there’s always a dialectical tension between the ruler and the ruled, the latter struggling to be free of the former, and the former struggling to be free of the danger of assassination. Hence, once Caligula becomes emperor, he must be rid of Macro, then Gemellus…even if they don’t actually pose a threat to him, for always is the emperor paranoid.

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown’. —King Henry IV

(Incidentally, the film’s depiction of Macro decapitated by a kind of giant lawnmower, so to speak, is more fake history: Macro, having been falsely promised the governorship of Egypt, committed suicide after falling out of favour with Caligula. See Graves, page 341.)

Drusilla’s Death, Caligula’s Despair

With Drusilla’s death ends Caligula’s own will to live, so everything he does after his mourning of her is to provoke the wrath of the senate, the army, and the Praetorian Guard in so blatant a way that it must be the expression of a death wish comparable to that of CamusCaligula (“Les hommes meurent et ils ne sont pas heureux.“–Men die and they aren’t happy. [Act I, Scene iv]). His wife, Caesonia (Mirren), warns him not to provoke those powerful men, but her words fall on deaf ears…or rather urge him further.

Devastated by his loss, he disappears from the sight of the Roman nobility, as does the Caligula of Camus’ play (Act I, Scenes i-ii). He wanders among the common people in a blue robe, looking as if he were one of them.

He watches a group of actors putting on a show, standing on a triangle representing the social classes of Rome: the slaves, the people, the army, tribunes, senate, and emperor. None of this display offends Caligula, because he of course benefits from the hierarchy; but when an actress portraying Drusilla mockingly sings of her wish to make love with Caligula, the grieving emperor is infuriated. He shoves the actors off the triangle, making them fall to the ground.

His mingling with the poor, including sharing a jail cell with them (where he meets the ‘giant’ [Osiride Pevarello]), suggests his sympathy for them, but it shouldn’t. As emperor, Caligula only feels antipathy for the other powerful men of Rome, as Tiberius did. Beware of politicians who, however hated they may be by the establishment, only pretend to care for the people.

Fatal Provocations

When Caligula returns and appears before the senate, he begins his fatal string of provocations by declaring himself to be a living god and requiring the unanimous support of the senate, annoying Longinus (Steiner) and Chaerea. His next insult is to make cuckolds of the senators by making whores of their wives.

The soundtrack of the Imperial Bordello, again with naked slaves dancing about, includes an amusingly ironic use of an excerpt from, of all pieces, Prokofiev’s Cinderella ballet! At the moment in the music when the clock strikes midnight, and Cinderella must go home, in the movie we approach the money shot!

I can’t help thinking this choice of music was a private joke of the film’s producers. Hearing music programmatically representing the ending of the traditional girl’s fantasy is juxtaposed with seeing the ending of the prurient man’s fantasy: one of the many ways the ruling class divides us is to promote male and female fantasies that are diametrically opposed to each other.

And just as the slaves and senators’ wives are degraded, so were the Penthouse Pets in the pornographic scenes in the movie. Consider the sad fate of “Anneka Di Lorenzo” (playing Messalina) to see my point. Consider also how Proculus (and the actor who plays him) is degraded: cuckolded before his eyes, then fisted, on his wedding day (in Howard’s novelization, Caligula sodomizes Proculus [pages 154-155]); stripped frontally naked before laughing Messalina and Agrippina (Lori Wagner), then stabbed to death slowly and sadistically; then after he passes out, he’s pissed on and emasculated.

Caligula’s provocations continue with the ‘invasion’ of Britain; he has his soldiers run naked (i.e., he degrades them to slave-like status) into some water and make war…with papyrus. Later, at a banquet, he displays the spoils of his ‘conquest’ of Britain: oysters and pearls placed in naked slave-women’s genitalia are presented by slave men carrying the women.

Caesonia warns Caligula that the “important men” of Rome now hate him; he replies, “Let them hate me–so long as they fear me.” In a provocation comparable to that of Camus‘ Caligula, he confiscates “the entire estates of all those who have failed Rome.”

He then discusses, with Longinus and Chaerea, a conspiracy against him that he’s heard of; he and Caesonia laugh when he brings it up. Caligula finds the notion of a plot against his life amusing because he no longer cares whether he lives or dies. Life is painful, absurd, and meaningless, because happiness–even as lord of the whole world–is impossible to attain. Camus’ Caligula is cruel to everyone for the same reason: even emperors are Spartacus-slaves in life, liberated only by death.

Caesonia still fears for him, and when she sees a bird flying about their bed one night, she screams at the omen–while Caligula looks at it and gives a slight smirk. He’s glad his death is coming soon, for he can then join Drusilla in Tartarus…a happy hell for them, since at least they’ll be able to suffer together.

Finally, Chaerea assassinates the emperor, who defiantly says, “I…live” as Chaerea’s sword cuts into him. He falls down dead, as do Caesonia and their daughter when the latter has her brains dashed on the steps. In death, Caligula is finally happy, as were Cleobis and Biton (Herodotus’ Histories, 1.31), and as Tiberius claimed was the soldier he killed for drinking wine while on duty.

The idea that Longinus and Chaerea choose Claudius (Giancarlo Badessi) to be the next emperor is more fake history, for it was the Praetorian Guard who chose to make him Caesar (as the last man living in the Julio-Claudian dynasty, Claudius as emperor was the only way to avert civil war). Claudius would have Chaerea executed for the killing of not only Caligula, but also Caesonia and the child.

In any case, we see–in replacing Caligula with Claudius–the unchanging reality of the contradiction of master vs. slave. Even if Tiberius and Caligula weren’t the depraved madmen/perverts that Suetonius claims they were, they were still masters oppressing their slaves, as ‘virtuous’ Claudius would also be: this latter evil is the one we should be paying attention to…but we don’t.

Conclusion

My original curiosity in this film (as I suspect is the case with many, if not most, other viewers) came in spite of–or rather, because of–its bad reputation. I had a morbid fascination with the thought…just how bad is this movie? How outrageous is it? How shocking? How disturbing? How revulsive? I sure learned how much. (Furthermore, I’d be dishonest if I were to claim that I had no interest in the sexual content in the movie, having written much erotic fiction myself.)

Having already been familiar with other dramatizations of imperial Rome under the Julio-Claudians (the I, Claudius and A.D.–Anno Domini TV miniseries), as well as writings on that period of history (Tacitus, Suetonius, Dio, and Robert Graves’s Claudius novels), I assumed the depravity of the emperors was true. Then, after reading such writers as G.P. Baker and Anthony A. Barrett, I learned otherwise.

Therefore, I have concluded that if we’re to take a serious look at the wickedness of imperial Rome (and, by extension, of the ancient world in general), the best way to look at it is in the class antagonisms of the time…just as we should focus on the class antagonisms of today. The masters’ brutal exploitation of their slaves is what should be focused on, not dubious reports of sexual perversity or madness in individual emperors.

However virtuous Augustus, Claudius, or Marcus Aurelius may have been in the eyes of their fellow nobiles, and however vile Tiberius, Gaius Caligula, Nero, or Domitian may have been in the ruling class’s opinion, what the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ emperors had in common is far more important than what was different between the two groups.

History would have been kinder to Tiberius–who had been an excellent general, and never wanted to be emperor–had he died around AD 23, for that was before the treason trials. Caligula, far from being the ‘anarchist’ that McDowell portrayed him as, actually strengthened and enlarged the personal power of the emperor, as opposed to the power of such men as those of the senate, directing much attention to construction projects and beginning the building of two aqueducts in Rome.

What must be emphasized is that the ‘bad’ emperors were vilified for injuries to the senate and other powerful men in Rome; both ‘bad’ and ‘good’ emperors kept the practice of slavery going unabated, with at best, only minor reforms to address the issue of the slaves’ oppression. We must learn to ignore the sensationalist narratives, the fake history, and focus on the banal evil that really happened, just as we should turn our heads away from the sensationalist fake news of today (i.e., what naughty things did Trump say last week?) and focus on the real wickedness committed all the time, year after year, regardless of who’s the leader or which political party is in power…a harsh reality that is largely ignored by the mainstream media.

We rightly condemn the Nazis for the roughly 11,000,000 people they murdered, but wrongly forget King Leopold II of Belgium, whose regime was responsible for the killing of up to ten or fifteen million black Congolese. We remember the former killers, because their victims were white; we forget the latter killers, because their victims were black. Similarly, we remember the wickedness of Tiberius and Caligula because their victims were fellow members of the upper classes; we forget the wickedness of all emperors and the other upper classes because their victims were slaves.

The sensationalism of Caligula is tasteless in the extreme, but in a way, appropriately so; for it reminds us of how unhelpful sensationalism and fake news are in understanding the true, everyday, unchanging reality of oppression in the world.

William Howard, “Gore Vidal’s Caligula”, Warner Books, New York, 1979

Robert Graves, I, Claudius, Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1934

Albert Camus, Caligula, suivi de Le malentendu, Editions Gallimard, Paris, 1958

Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome, Penguin Classics, London, this translation 1956

Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, Penguin Classics, London, translation first published 1957

G.P. Baker, Tiberius Caesar, Emperor of Rome, Cooper Square Press, New York, 1929

Anthony A. Barrett, Caligula, The Corruption of Power, Yale University Press, London, 1989