Postmodern Conservative

Two Views of the End Times: Eros

How to think about comedy and democracy with Aristophanes

The year’s 2016, and Horace and Pete must avoid tragedy. The two brothers just might, with the help of a comic poet, save themselves from the wreck of their nameless family. How? By holding on to whatever is left of family and the family business. So these guys have to face up to the twin threats of old men who are angry because they are losing their authority and young women who are angry because the authority gained by feminism doesn’t make them happy. Anger is the passion that incites people to remember or imagine the injustices of the past and is in turn fueled by those same injustices. Anger then is the result of the perceived distance between the “right side of History” — now — and the past. A brief history of injustice is rehearsed at various points in the show. Anger is the inevitable mark of perceived attacks on equality. The history is what makes the perception possible.

Unfortunately for the self-importance of our contemporary guardians of justice as equality, the great target of comic poets is precisely the haughtiness of these guardians. The comic poet punctures the pretensions of those whose anger blinds them from their haughtiness. And who is haughtier than the secular martyrs to ;the faith of equality So comedy, far from being the servant of this kind of politics, is actually its natural enemy. Comedy just might become moderately offensive in its mounting of a moderate defense of inequality.

So ladies first. The woman trouble showcases the show’s philosophical side. Episode 3 is an almost uninterrupted dialogue between Horace, who runs the bar, and his ex-wife, whom he has traduced, ruining their marriage and family. She wants his advice so she can imitate him in traducing her new husband. She adds considerable literary fantasy. The thrust of all this is: Woman introduces eros into sturdy, manly America, corrupting everything. The way she tells the story of attractive men and American morality, she suggests woman was neglected in man’s unerotic, bourgeois story of striving and laboring. All of this recalls Tocqueville’s portrait of the American woman who could could resign herself to a life without finery because she had her pick of men (unlike, say, European woman). Tocqueville also explicitly praises women’s education, but not men’s, suggesting that women’s preferences would educate the men. Well, it’s time for feminist revenge, for a new education, it would seem, that puts eros in the center and privileges women, not men.

Horace, who cannot advertise or beautify anything, has a surprising advantage as a tried and true sinner: There’s no reason to fear him. The base — including the self-abased — will not shame us. This comfort, this forgetting of shame, seems needful nowadays. The world that Christianity wrought was too full of judgment: The judgment was seldom salvific. Our world is about getting over judgment and moving on with life. It’s vaguely Christian: It is about seeing what’s good in sinners. But everyone’s trying to forget all about sin. Maybe salvation isn’t all that attractive anymore. Welcome to the world after the Rapture! Something crucial has been lost. And will any life or order afterward be worth the sacrifice?

In this world, Horace brings some of the wisdom of Plato’s Aristophanes. He tells the woman, It’s fine, you’re fine, I’m fine: There are so many of us sinners that we could make an army and we’d defeat the goodly people. Eros is the general of an army whose war is against heaven. Law, the authority of Zeus, can be overcome. So he uproots law from family — the weapon of eros is the worst crime known to tragedy: incest. Also, a banal fact of American life — nobody dies over it!

This is nevertheless very tricky for a poet. The way it’s done in the show is, one instance is recounted and another is imagined — as opposed to being enacted or depicted — and neither involves blood relation. The law of marriage is under attack here, not its purpose, the preservation of family. The gradual revelation that incest is the truth of the breakup of family runs against something else: On the surface, it’s all about latter-day psychology, which rationalizes anything. Traducing one’s spouse is first said to be merely the consequence of fear of commitment, a trope much abused in our time. Then the traducing turns out to be incestuous. This may be too nasty a joke for the audience.

Remember what Aristophanes is saying in Plato’s Symposium.What makes us individuals and, therefore, deficient also makes us human: We’re the only animals with longing or, to be more precise, eros. Sex, not reason, is the difference between man and beast. Humans do not mate in season, but chaotically! Now, the poet is not trying to break down the law, he is merely trying to explain that nature will not suffice to justify law, so to speak, because only the human family is grounded in the incest prohibition.

Nature not having prescribed limits to human mating, chaos is always threatening where the law is weak. And law is weakest precisely when it is pitted against eros. And democracy is the gradual revelation of the reign of eros, or rule by pleasure, because desires are the only future commitment to which everyone submits one way or another. So with this ex-wife of a certain age, who has raised more than a few kids. Some reasonable way of thinking about family is the only way to thwart eros, the comic poet implies, but it ain’t easy! This woman has the moral authority of a victim of or martyr to equality, given the way she was treated by Horace; and she has the domestic happiness of having raised kids and the joy of raising kids now who love her and whom she loves; and added to all that is the weakness of the passions at her age; all these do not suffice by themselves to prevent the incest she is contemplating.

There is a question as to what the purpose of the dialogue between Horace and his ex-wife is, whether it can help restrain her by the long road of denying there is any restraint. In an age of equality, fighting against restraints is the most obvious sign of one’s freedom, and doing what others do, the most obvious sign of equality.

Mr. Louis C.K. has arrived at an insight similar to that of Aristophanes. Facing up to eros as the deity or divine force of democracy, and facing it down in the essentially conservative cause of strengthening law, is the task of poetry, and it is very difficult. Louis’s intention is to demystify eros. Comedy as popularly understood is almost entirely about vulgarity, and he seems to think that vulgarity might take some of the charm out of tragedy. I’ve already treated anger; the other passion comedy depends on is lust. Lust points to nature, as opposed to convention or shame; and it has the power to move people. Louis is hoping to use nature to deflate some of the conventions about equality in our time.

The dialogue between former spouses should be seen as potentially revengeful. Imitating her former husband may seem to the woman to be dictated by equality. The social state of equality is resurrecting the oldest understanding of justice: tit for tat. The woman’s new family has nothing to do with the old one. That old incest is not calling forth a new one. But equality might say to woman, Do now as the man did then. And there is always a neatness about these situations that attempt to structure history into cause and effect. Lived experience is reduced to a story of sin calling forth sin. It’s of some importance to notice that tit-for-tat is one attempt to make order out of chaos; the laws that interdict shameful acts are another such attempt; how they might work together is hard to say, but the plot of a comedy is supposed to show that.

There is also a problem with demystifying eros to prevent tragedy: What’s left in us, then? At any rate, it would take the fight out of us. Instead of fighting, we’d try to deal with our suffering and treat each other as people: Healing wounds or at least dressing them might be all that’s left. That and life’s enjoyments, as and when they are not too dangerous! Not very erotic. We might remember the alternative: people who believe it’s worth taking a chance on love, who bet more than they can afford to lose, would have to live within the law. That means remembering the scary animal skins God gives Adam and Eve instead of fig leaves. That’s how we know not to turn into beasts.

Titus Techera hosts the American Cinema Foundation movie podcast. He is a Claremont Institute Fellow and a contributor to Law & Liberty.


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