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  • “Betrayal (of Nature) (in Homage to Harold Pinter)”A Drama
  • Karen Pinkus (bio)

Scene 1. Time: 7.2 million years in the future. Mount Rushmore’s granite begins to erode so that the faces of past presidents are barely recognizable. A faint breeze blows. Pause.

(In Scene 1 of Harold Pinter’s 1978 play, Betrayal, Emma and Jerry meet at a pub. After only a few minutes we come to learn that the couple had an extramarital affair that has now fizzled out. The information is revealed indirectly, through dialogue that seems no more necessary than any of the other things the ex-lovers say. The words are both instrumentally indicative and profoundly Pinteresque. On the page there is nothing exceptional about this scene.

On stage, after Scene 1, the lights would dim and the scenery would change to a domestic setting. Unless we have read spoiler reviews of the play, we have every right to assume that Scene 2 follows chronologically and logically after Scene 1. [End Page 115] Indeed, it does. [So if we have read reviews, we feel betrayed by them or at least confused]. More dialogue reveals that the betrayed husband is talking with Jerry, his best friend. Apparently the husband has known about the affair for some time and now his marriage is ending).

Scene 2. Time: One million years in the future. Place: Outer Space. The Voyager space craft, launched in 1977, begins to come apart. On its surface is mounted an aluminum casing containing a 12-inch gold-plated copper record incised with sounds and images of planet earth, as well as instructions in that general (universal in the largest sense?) language that is “scientific” (diagrams, numbers). Among the images captured on the record is a letter (written in the particular language that is English) by then President Jimmy Carter. It includes the following text: “We cast this message into the cosmos. It is likely to survive a billion years into the future, when our civilization is profoundly altered and the surface of the earth may be vastly changed” (Sagan et al. 1978, 28). And Carl Sagan concurs: “Billions of years from now our sun, then a distended red giant star, will have reduced Earth to a charred cinder. But the Voyager record will be largely intact, preserving a murmur of an ancient civilization that once flourished—perhaps before moving on to greater deeds and other worlds—on the distant planet Earth” (1978, 42). Carter and Sagan may have been off by hundreds of millions of years—the record is very likely damaged and unplayable by any life forms with turntables.1

Nature, on a universal scale, has betrayed the ambitions of great men of science to reach out to life beyond earth, using a sample of languages spoken by humans (with English in predominance), greetings written and recorded at Cornell University. We may use the phrase “betrayal of nature” in common speech without a second thought. That is, we assume “Nature” as a vast entity can perform a series of actions upon an entity distinct from “it” (“her”)—the human. These might include volcanic eruptions or earthquakes, for instance. And we might well speak of actions in reverse, such as pollution or overproduction of greenhouse gas emissions. What is a betrayal (of nature)? To betray, in common speech, coming to us from Old French and English, is to deceive, to give over to an enemy, to be disloyal. How did we get here from the apparently more neutral Latin “tradere”—to deliver? That is, how and when did betrayal turn from an act of moving an object across a boundary, to a [End Page 116] heinous act of decidedly negative moral or physical consequences? In the early developments of the vernacular languages, perhaps, a boundary was crossed. In the crossing over, or delivery into these languages, “tradere” moved from an act of moving to an act of betrayal, as it also took on a valence (in part because of its other cognates) related to the hand. Betrayal was betrayed. This crossing over and manu-facture seems especially fruitful for thinking of what it might mean for the human...


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pp. 115-127
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