Monday, April 12, 2010

Don't taste, and see

One of the most provocative texts we read in "Religion and Theater" is Donald S. Lopez' essay on "Belief" from Critical Terms for Religious Studies (Chicago, 1998). Lopez is a critical Buddhologist who knows that the notion of belief … is neither natural nor universal. (28) Lopez marshals historical and philosophical reasons to be suspicious of belief, leading to the suggestion that It might be described as an ideology, not so much in the sense of false consciousness but as an idea that arises from a specific set of material conditions. (28) It is really a fiction employed as a surrogate for more visible concerns (27). What sort of concerns? Well... The statement ‘I believe in…’ is sensible only when there are others who ‘do not’; it is an agonistic affirmation of something that cannot be submitted to ordinary rules of verification. The very impossibility of verification has historically functioned as a means of establishing a community against ‘the world,’ hinting at a counterfactual reality to which only the believers have access. (33) Ergo, a pretext for persecution.

This is fun in the context of theater, and especially if you read it at the same time you're puzzling out the Counter (or Catholic-) Reformation's embrace of the illusions of theater. Like the Spanish golden age plays which accompanied the Catholic Eucharist (we're again exploring Pedro Calderon de la Barca's Life's a Dream), the thing that cannot be submitted to ordinary rules of verification par exellence. It may be that substance is inaccessible to us, who can only see the attributes experienced by our senses. But this needn't mean that a natural science (and a merely symbolic liturgy) win out. Not if "reality" itself proves unverifiable! Can we really trust our senses? I invoked Descartes' "evil genie" to suggest what it would be like to doubt even the reports of your senses... and, returning to La Vida es Sueño, tried to show how one might turn, in confusion (or hope - not all the worlds we think are real are worlds we much like) to morality: it pays to do what's right even in dreams is one of the morals of the story. Or to paradoxical beings which participate in more than one reality. In Vida es Sueño, it's the temporarily hippogriff-like Rosaura...

In a class of philosophers or ardent secularists (or Buddhists), Lopez' argument would win easily. But in a room of people called to devote a life to the enchantments of the stage, where the visible and the real overlap and intertwine in mysterious ways, proving substance and attributes more malleable than you might suppose (actors experience a transubustantiation of their own), it's a closer call.

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