STOP YOUR ROMANTIC FEAR
Sexual preferences: no blacks, no Arabs, no Asians. At a recent panel discussion on postcolonialism and queerness, one of the panellists talked about his experience of racism on gay portals such as GayRomeo and Grindr, telling anecdotes about men who had rejected him because of his skin colour. His conclusion: Hey, I do not want to police desires. If they don’t like it, they don’t.
That surprised me. Did it mean that desire was extraneous to us, outside the structures in which we live? Is desire inviolable, beyond discussion? Is that perhaps what makes it so exciting—its immunity to moral norms and political correctness?
Perhaps feelings are the last bastion of our faith. God, Karma and Communism have lost their appeal—at least in the left-leaning liberal circles where we theatre-makers like to think of ourselves. (It seems to be a law of nature that anyone working in the theatre is left wing. Whatever that’s supposed to mean.) But feelings have stuck around. Where would theatre be without them? What was Brecht thinking when he said, ‘Stop your romantic gawking’? What kind did he want? When we assert our emotions, we make ourselves heard. I am human, I have feelings. Our emotions make us vulnerable and fallible—and thus authentic and likable. In Germany, there was much discussion about chancellor Angela Merkel’s performance in the TV election debate. Asked whether she was for or against adoption rights for same-sex couples, Merkel replied, ‘To be quite honest with you, I have trouble with it.’ This ‘honesty’ earned her a great deal of sympathy; bloggers and commentators praised her for listening to her gut feeling and there was much romantic gawking. The chancellor had outed herself as human.
In an age where there seems to be an objective explanation for everything, emotions are the last of life’s great mysteries. Who would we be if our loves, desires and fears could be explained or deciphered? If a mundane causal chain were all it took to make sense of them? I used to love semolina when I was little; now eating it takes me back to the safe world of home. When I was a child I always played ‘Who’s afraid of the black man’ in school; now I’m afraid of black men. We get angry if anyone tries to explain our emotions. We believe we have a right to emotional idiosyncrasy. If our emotions feel special, they must be true—must tell us something more than the sum of events, something deeper, more genuine. Supposing ourselves safely on the correct side, we think it legitimate to make fun of the one-dimensional discourse of alt-right groups and their various local splinters. But what about our own discourse?
Not for the first time, an urge to action is sweeping the world of theatre. Something must be done, we say, to stop Neo-Nazis and the Alternative for Germany, to help refugees, to increase tolerance, diversity etc. But I don’t believe we can change anything until we include ourselves in our analysis of what is rotten in this state of ours.
Germany’s conservative CSU politicians demonstrated an acute lack of historical awareness when they called for ‘the fears of citizens’ to be ‘taken seriously’—but don’t we culture-makers do the same in our cleverly packaged programmes? Don’t we too start from the premise that foreigners pose risks, using it as a basis to discuss how many others a community can tolerate when it has been lulled into a national stupor? How do we play with the ‘fears’ of our audience? What exactly gets reflected on stage?
The performance of our directors, the staffing of our teams, the way we handle gender equality—all these things say something about our attitude to the world. And that attitude is reproduced in what we give back to the world, every evening, when the curtain goes up.
When we plead for tolerance by staging eighteenth-century Enlightenment plays, when we try to find dark-haired actors for this one project about people in Neukölln, when we say, ‘I’d like to cast a black Juliet but I’m afraid the audience might read it wrong…’ The term ‘tolerance’ implies the existence of a norm from which to tolerate. We have to see ourselves as the norm before we can identify the abnormal and either integrate it into our own scheme (assimilation) or send out the message you’re different, but I can live with you (tolerance). We in the art world set norms as much as anyone.
There can, of course, be no question of taking seriously the ‘fear’ of far-right groups like Pegida and the Alternative for Germany—and surely hatred would be the more appropriate term (or the chauvinism of affluence). But to understand how fear is made, we must first deconstruct it—strip it of its mystery, its inviolability. We could start by questioning our own fear. We put together versatile programmes and sometimes employ actors with immigrant backgrounds in our ensembles. But don’t we also take advantage of the alt-right, using it as a smokescreen to avoid facing up to our own part in the dynamics?
If a pregnant woman is gripped by fear at the thought of the refugee home round the corner, is that racism or natural instinct? If a bag is clutched tighter at the sight of passing Roma women, if kids aren’t allowed to play in the park because of the dealers there, if parents want their child to go to a school where German is spoken, and so on and on and on. Can we abstract ourselves from our fears?
It is certainly less effort to think about religious tolerance in Nathan the Wise than about the continuing rarity in the German theatre scene of people whose biographies deviate from the majority discourse—or about the reasons for that rarity. You just have to listen to the things people say: ‘What are you moaning about? You’ve got the Maxim Gorki Theatre, haven’t you?’
Žižek says, ‘The problem for us is not are our desires satisfied or not? The problem is how do we know what we desire? There is nothing spontaneous, nothing natural about human desires. (…) We have to be taught how to desire. Cinema (…) tells you how’.
If we transpose Žižek’s quotation onto the concept of fear and unpack it a bit, we might end up with something along the lines of: cinema, the media and our grandmothers tell us how and whom to fear. Films get us with their aesthetic imagery. (The bad Latino gang scares the blonde woman, but the mandatory blond hero isn’t far behind—hey, didn’t we all think Drive was a ‘beautifully made’ film?) The media impress us with good cuts (the instant causal links of news videos where we see Muslims at prayer as the presenter speaks of terror). And then there’s Granny. Don’t we all have a granny somewhere who protected us from the big bad world, took us on her lap when we grazed our knees on the playground, comforted us when we cried, sang ‘Ten Little N*****s’ to us as she rocked us in her arms? No? Then maybe ‘Ching Chong Chinaman’ as she sewed us a ‘Red Indian’ costume?
It feels good to have fears. The problem for us is not are our desires satisfied? If we know what we’re afraid of (the begging Syrian family, the young dealers in the park, the state of Israel…), we know who we are. Fear connects. It creates union, unity. It makes us part of a community, it bonds us with Granny, it builds a sense of identity. I can find no other way to explain the vehemence with which people in Germany fought against the removal of the n-word in children’s books and the elimination of blackface. As if art stood outside history, as if racism were a thing of the past—or at least the prerogative of Pegida & Co.
There is nothing natural about our feelings. They are artificial. That sounds harsh. But we must name and debunk our fears. We must stop pleading for tolerance and start to develop a new way of thinking—one that isn’t based on us and them. If we don’t, there will be little to distinguish our theatre discourse from the alt-right discourse we find so abhorrent.
If our fear is artificial, we are responsible for it. But if we pull it apart it to find out what this feeling is that shapes and conditions us, we have a chance. We must aim to be less in thrall to our fear, mustn’t let it catch us unawares and leave us lost, ashamed and apathetic. We must aim to proclaim a more just society and to live as if theatre were the smallest cell in that utopia.
Original German article published in Theater der Zeit 11/2015
Tr. Imogen Taylor