Primal political events

There’s Euphoria, another TV show I’ve never watched but read about in, this time, The New Yorker Today. Euphoria is about the homeland generation, the generation I teach. I didn’t know all of this was going on outside of my classroom.

The New Yorker review accounts for “all of this” in part by citing this generation’s “primal political event” — 9/11. The review’s account wouldn’t work for Hannah Arendt: for her, violence isn’t a political event but merely signals a political failure. Her vision of the political is broad and positive, as is (I’m discovering) Roland Barthes’, who distinguishes between “the political” and “politics.” For Barthes, “the political” is “a fundamental order of history, of thought, of everything that is done, and said.” Arendt, too, defines the political as something like pure act and speech. “Politics,” on the other hand, for Barthes is “the same old story, the discourse of repetition.”1

Arendt and Barthes were of the same generation, born nine years apart, like Victoria and me, and a century before my students.

I was born halfway between those writers and my students, and my own primal political event was a mere placeholder. It was the scene in A Man for All Seasons in which Thomas More argues with his son-in-law, the impetuous William Roper:

William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!

I first saw the movie when I was my students’ age. I was euphoric: never man spake like this man.2 Get a load of some of the movie’s other dialogue here.

I guess it’s only a kind of justice that the generation I teach is portrayed on TV (outside of life) as having been defined by a political event outside of politics, and that my own primal political event happened not in life but in a movie. Viewing it this way, 9/11 is a kind of Truman Show, a TV show — or a movie, rather, about a TV show. The Truman Show was released just three years before the planes hit, and that attack out of the blue seems to have been anticipated by a TV studio’s light fixture falling from what Truman had taken from birth to be the sky.

I call A Man for All Seasons a “placeholder” for a “primal political event” because the dialogues between More and Roper — and More and Cromwell and More and Norfolk and More and Henry VIII — were eventually replaced for me by the real-life dialogue between Edward Coke and King James I, not a Tudor this time but England’s first Stewart monarch. Coke argued for the common law and therefore for lawyers, for the continuation of their archetypal function as a civic priesthood, a mediator (if not always an intercessor) between God and civil society.

Coke’s context was James’s attempt to become England’s judge as well as its king. James’s rejoinder to Coke, according to Coke, was “that he thought the law was founded upon reason, and that he and others had reason, as well as the Judges.” Here’s Coke’s account of more of the dialogue, beginning with his reply to the king:

that true it was, that God had endowed his Majesty with excellent science, and great endowments of nature; but His Majesty was not learned in the laws of his realm of England, and causes which concern the life, or inheritance, or goods, or fortunes of his subjects, are not to be decided by natural reason but by the artificial reason and judgement of law, which law is an art which requires long study and experience, before that a man can attain to the cognizance of it: and that the law was the golden met-wand [measuring rod] and measure to try the causes of the subjects; and which protected his Majesty in safety and peace: with with the King was greatly offended, and said, that then he should be under the law, with was treason to affirm, as he said; to which I said, that Braxton saith, quod Rex non debit esse sub homie, sed sub Deo et lege [the king ought to be under no man, but under God and the law].3

Did the conversation really stop there? If so, was it because Coke threw some Latin at the king? There’s this scene in A Man for All Seasons in which Henry engages the engaging Margaret, More’s daughter who is then engaged to Roper, with a little Latin. Margaret answers in a torrent. The king loses the thread and turns away.

Our own executive, too, has answered calls for his circumscription by the rule of law with accusations of treason. His understanding of the State doesn’t extend past his mirror, but our larger problem is the modern concept of the State, which James here well articulates. The State is sovereign, so the State threatens the political. And both the State and political sovereignty are modern concepts. In fact, for me these two concepts define modernity. They are modernity’s violent and primal political event, to redeploy that oxymoron.

I’ve always liked Coke’s bold description of law as based on “artificial” reason best construed by lawyers and judges. Some evangelicals, in the spirit of Roper, count how many signers were Christians. Hannah Arendt instead counts how many lawyers were in the colonial legislatures when the first state constitutions were drafted after July 4, 1776 (the Gettysburg Address’s contender for “primal political event”). Lawyers writing constitutions: so much treasonous artificiality, according to the colonies’ sovereign, King George III.

We need art and the artificial. I saw The Truman Show on my TV, after all. In Barthes’ playful prose, he acknowledges, “the political is constantly present, but hidden.”4 The political (as opposed to “politics”) is in what Richard Howard calls in his preface to Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text “an evidently random succession of fragments: facets, aphorisms, touches and shoves, nudges, elbowing, bubbles, trial balloons, ‘phylacteries,’ as he calls them, of an invisible design . . .”5 There’s some political religion for you: phylacteries. Overt reminders for their wearers to keep the law.

Jesus had no problem with phylacteries, you know. He just didn’t like broad ones — ones to be seen by men and not by the Pharisees wearing them.6 He wasn’t lopping off phylacteries to get at the Devil.

Maybe if our schools passed out phylacteries, there wouldn’t be so much sex in Euphoria.

Howard’s isn’t the only preface to demonstrate how fragments — reality’s intrusions onto ideology — are sometimes a writer’s instinctive response to the modern thirst for sovereignty. Consider Greil Marcus’s preface to Walter Benjamin’s One-Way Street, the latter written as a kind of newspaper-blog in Germany in the years leading up to Hitler’s rise to power:

One thing that linked Benjamin, Aragon, Adorno, and Chtchelgov (and, for a moment, Ruttmann, before he became a Nazi) was the philosophical conviction, or instinct, that the totality had to be resisted, even chipped away, even defeated, by the fragment: the street, the sign, the name, the face, the aphorism, the evanescent, the ephemeral, the worthless, the unimportant, the meaningless.7

And Benjamin’s One-Way Street reads like Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text — seemingly random fragments piled like sandbags against ruinous politics that, like sovereignty in man’s hands, have no concept of banks or boundaries.

Both books, of course, read a lot like any reporter from the past 700 years compiling cases construing the common law. (You’ve seen these reporters — numbered, beige books behind lawyers who are interviewed on TV from their firms’ conference rooms. I’ve never heard of anyone, lawyer or otherwise, reading one from cover to cover.)

Here’s some more political religion for you: sovereignty is God’s alone. As Arendt says in the context of the political, “If men wish to be free, it is precisely sovereignty they must renounce.”8

It’s Father’s Day, and James I thought himself a father to his people. In fact, James was the first patriarchalist king, adopting the modern theory of sovereignty espoused by the likes of Robert Filmer and known today as the Divine Right of Kings. The Athenian polis, the argument perhaps goes, should be replaced by permitting the Athenian domestic dictatorship that supported it to overrun its banks.

An in-law of mine once defended her vote for our president to me this way: he’s a good father.

More from that New Yorker app: if your father seemed a remote figure, here’s why.

  1. Roland Barthes, The Grain of the Voice, at 218.
  2. John 7:46.
  3. James R. Stoner, Jr., Common Law and Liberal Theory, at 30.
  4. Barths, supra, at 219.
  5. Richard Howard, “A Note on the Text” in Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, at viii.
  6. Matthew 23:5.
  7. Greil Marcus, preface to Walter Benjamin’s One-Way Street, at xvi.
  8. Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future, at 163.

By Peter

After stints as a trial lawyer and a church worker, Peter Stephens has settled in as a Virginia high school English teacher. Peter has read several books and poems. He wrote none of the posts below filed under "Passages." Click the link at the end of each post to see it in the context of the author's original post.