24 August 2011

The political and apolitical of ‘Androcles and the Lion’

An old friend, now domiciled in Australia, after urging me to set up my own blog and not finding any enthusiasm on my part except for ‘yes, I’ll think about it’ each time the subject was broached, she went ahead and did it.  She reads, corrects, and suggests improvements almost every day.  I didn’t write anything for Tuesday (August 22, 2011) and therefor picked something I had written over a year ago to post on the blog: The counter-democratic and communalist thrust of re-inventing ‘ethnic’ conflict (‘Daily Mirror’ of April 18, 2010). 
My friend (let’s call her Manel) appeared in ‘chat’ and said ‘this is an old one’.  I told her I picked it randomly from my files and found the content still relevant. 
‘Yes, I gathered you might not have written anything,’ she said and recommended that I ‘leave politics and write about something else today’. 
‘Such as?’
‘Sex toys!’ 
She was kidding.  I asked her to pick a random book, turn to a random page, close her eyes, place a finger on the page and tell me what’s beneath it.  She mentioned some social research text book so I told her that I would prefer fiction.  She came up with the following exchange in the script of a play by (yes, of all ‘non-political’ people!) George Bernard Shaw:

Androcles and the Lion

Lentulus: Centurion: I call on you to protect me.
Centurion: You asked for it, sir. It's no business of ours. You’ve had two whacks at him. Better pay him a trifle and square it that way.
Lentulus: Yes, of course. [To Ferrovius] it was only a bit of fun, I assure you; I meant no harm. Here [he proffers a gold coin].
Ferrovius: [taking it and throwing it to the old beggar, who snatches it up eagerly, and hobbles off to spend it] Give all thou hast to the poor. Come, friend: courage! I may hurt your body for a moment; but your soul will rejoice in the victory of the spirit over the flesh. [he prepares to strike].

This is from ‘Androcles and the Lion,’ in a collection of his plays published by Colorgravure Publications, Melbourne.  Page 691.

My last encounter with Bernard Shaw was when I played a drunkard in an abridged version of ‘Major Barbara’ written by Prof Ashley Halpe and produced by the Peradeniya Dramatic Society.  My first was when I acted out an extract from ‘Androcles’ for a Speech and Drama examination, probably over thirty years ago, trained by the evergreen Lakshmi Jeganathan, who not only taught me my ‘Eai, Bee and See’ but made me appreciate literature. 

The political intrudes, I am sorry to inform Manel.  It can be about boys and lions and thorns, but Bernard Shaw framed it all in subtle political commentary.  This reminds me of the late Gamini Haththotuwegama’s production of Hamlet in Sinhala way back in 1991.  A Shakespearean tragedy made of love, betrayal, palace intrigue and the machinations pertaining to power.  The particular iteration was of youth being drawn into the political, often reluctantly.   
It is nice to think the world is not just about things political, but politics pervades apolitical life; politics informs choices and manufactures choice-lack.  Politics is about power and power is not just about parliamentary composition, the clash of ideologies, the articulation of dissent and the meeting of dissent with force. 
It is not only about relative strengths of political parties, the structure of the state, the health of institutions pertaining to governance, the overall focus of policy or the relative value of factors in the political equation of a community, electorate, province, nation, region or the globe.  It is about power-manifestations in all things, including relationships, professional and personal, in social, cultural, economic and even ecological spheres of engagement.  It is about privilege and privileging, footnote and footnoting, even as it is about making choices, limits on choice-making and the modes of conduct vis-à-vis all these things. 

George Bernard Shaw
‘Androcles and the Lion’ is from Aesop’s Fables and is a story that speaks of gratitude, where a slave boy who escapes and befriends a lion is later left alone by the lion when the two find themselves as players in an arena with the emperor present to see a hungry beast tear to pieces a hapless boy. 
In the play, written in 1912, i.e. a century ago, the story is used to comment on earnestness and the pitfalls of hypocrisy, the latter being a characteristic of the Christian Church that Shaw condemned.  Indeed, in the preface that complemented the print version of the play, Shaw claims that Jesus was nothing more than a benevolent genius who eventually bought into popular ideas of his divinity and impending martyrdom (or else that’s how his story was mis-written by the his followers; a deft political move, one might say in the context of this discussion).  Shaw claims that the teachings were lost with the crucifixion and that the teachings and philosophies that are collected in his name are but those of Paul or Barabbas. 
I didn’t know all this in those early Androcles days of mine and hadn’t heard of Shaw either.  I don’t know enough to either reject or endorse Shaw’s version of events that happened 1900 years before his time, or are alleged to have happened.  Faith is a highly personal thing of course, but when faith is wielded like a flag, it cuts like a sword, for the faithful, regardless of the intensity of their fervor or indeed on account of it, can never be equivalent to divinity. 
Divinity itself is in a sense largely a construct or at least a frill of frail-human extrapolation.  There is a lot of machination and hypocrisy, which in turn dilutes that which is embrace-worthy of philosophy and relevant practice.  This is why when someone says that “God should be ashamed of himself for having created a creature as vile as man”, it is not entirely illogical or even blasphemous. Similarly thought-provoking is the twin contention, “God is man’s silliest creation”.  Like all things, in the final instance, it is the human being, the individual, who has to come to terms with his/her notion of the cosmos, life, afterlife, the moral universe, the dimensions of retribution and reward, and fashion ‘way of life’.  Belief in or disavowal of divinity are reference frames and useful in their own ways. 
‘Androcles’ is a political story, but that’s perhaps just me. Manel might not think so.  I was not planning to write about lions, human frailties or questions regarding the existence of the divine.  There is power, though.  And there is agency.  There is decision. There is need to cut through the vague and indeterminate.  There is need to figure out location in a moral-amoral continuum and choose journey-direction. 
There is a need to write a column and a need to oblige a friend.  There is a need to apologise and appreciate. Sorry Manel, and thank you.  

Courtesy: Daily News 24 August, 2011