- Melancholy Ontology, Evental Ethics, and the Lost (m)Other in Howard Barker’s Theatre of Catastrophe:An Analysis of 13 Objects
Without a bent for melancholia there is no psyche, only a transition to action or play.—Julia Kristeva, Black Sun1
[The play] is not about life as it is lived at all, but about life as it might be lived, about the thought which is not licensed, and about the abolished unconscious.—Howard Barker, Arguments2
Howard Barker (1946–) creates a tragic world, the avowed arché and telos of which are death. However, far from being tantamount to cessation, nihilistic terminus, or the perfection of life, death comes to designate not just the unknown, but the unknowable. It thus involves a state of nonknowledge that forecloses the normative values of use and exchange, and the orders of meaning and morality.3 As such, death in Barker’s Theatre of Catastrophe features as essentially inscrutable, being at once phenomenon and nonphenomenon, which is to say, neither phenomenologically perceptible nor representable, belonging to the order of enigma, secret, and silence.4 Barker refers to his Art of Theatre as “crucially an art of death” and, endowing it with an ontologically liminal position, locates his theatre on the bank of the river, which serves as the border between the dead and the living.5 He declares tragedy “the labour of death” and characterizes tragic art primarily as an art that promotes the “feeling for death.”6 Resonant with Schopenhauer’s attestation to the pivotal role of death in human life and thought—whereby death is “the real inspiring genius or the Muse of philosophy,” without which “there would [End Page 365] hardly have been any philosophizing”—Barker discerns death as the most fundamental subject of art and philosophy, declaring it “the subject of all philosophy and all theatre.”7 Resonant with the later Freud’s postulation of death as a fundamental drive and ultimate aim of life (“life is a detour to death”)8 and Heidegger’s ontological-existential consideration of death as immanent in human life,9 Barker observes: “Tragedy’s a priori—that we live only to be destroyed by life—renders the notion of wrong decisions meaningless.”10
Indeed, death constitutes a crux around which other aesthetic principles of Barker’s tragic drama—prominent among which are ethical speculation, contradiction, pain, anxiety, loss, and excess—constellate. Notably for present purposes, having defined the objects of “loss” as (rational, utilitarian, commonsensical, and empirical modes of) “knowledge” and “morality,” he proceeds to associate it with melancholy: “The State of Loss describes a state of lost morality, an ethical vacuum, a denial, a rebuke to order, a melancholy and a pain.”11 Relatedly, as is pervasively evident in his theoretical and dramatic works, pain is pivotal to Barker’s tragic work in thematic, dynamic, and aesthetic terms. Pain, as Barker emphasizes, should be perceived as “not disorder but necessity.” Barker recognizes pain as “spiritually necessary” to the “tragic sensibility,”12 which—considering its association with loss, contradiction, complexity, ethical ambiguity, and transgression—fosters “a melancholy beauty,” which serves as the “whole justification for his theatre.”13 More specifically, Barker establishes a firm, yet fraught, relationship between love, pain, and beauty (though death is also intimately bound up with these three), and molds them into a tension-laden manifold. The ensuing statement confirms the point at issue, with Barker defining his Theatre of Catastrophe as “a theatre…which insists on complexity and pain, and the beauty that can only be created from the spectacle of pain. In Catastrophe…lies the possibility of reconstruction.”14
This aesthetics of loss and excess, this poetics of sacrifice, acquires further dimensions when juxtaposed with the crucial questions of nihilism, the death of God, and ontological inadequacy (that is, the poverty of existence and the paucity of possibility of human existence and experience)—questions with which Barker’s characters are obsessed.15 These features drive us inexorably to the question of melancholia in Barker, [End Page 366] but they also constitute focal points of both modernity and its diagnostic critique both in continental philosophy and modernist literature.
The melancholic strain in Barker’s drama...