Sunday, April 22, 2012

Good People and Gadamer

David Lindsay-Abaire
A couple of months ago, with my brother, Gav, and friends Jasmina and Donna, I went to see an excellent production of Good People, a play by American playwright David Lindsay-Abaire. The play is a very recent work, first produced in 2011. We saw it at the Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre in Melbourne.

Good People is about a middle-aged man and woman who grew up together in a rough neighbourhood of Boston. The woman is single, still living in “Southie” and struggling to hold down a job and support a disabled daughter, while the man has moved up in the world. He is a doctor, living in middle-class comfort with his beautiful, much younger, academic wife and a healthy child. As the plot unfolds, the audience is led to make an unstable, shifting set of assumptions about why the lives of the two teenage lovers have turned out so differently.

A central theme of the play is the question of responsibility for an individual’s worldly success or failure. Is a person’s social and economic standing a consequence of personal choices and hard work or laziness? Or is it a matter of “luck,” reflecting a complex set of systematic societal influences, over which an individual has little or no control? The play doesn’t limit itself to this right-wing/left-wing alternative; it also suggests that where personal choices play a role, those that lead to worldly success are not necessarily worthy of respect or emulation, since they may involve adapting to systems that demand and thrive on ruthlessly selfish behavior. But stereotypically “good” self-sacrificial choices are equally laid open to interrogation: are such choices really good if they leave the individual who makes them in a miserable situation, and saddle the successful with a corrosive burden of guilt? What is missing in this portrait of a society dominated by the rhetoric of personal choice (and its shadow: a vision of total subjugation of the individual to impersonal systems) is any reliable possibility of mutual care and trust, or political solidarity across differences of class, race and gender. This absence seems to make any convincing form of personal goodness either simply unattainable, or incompatible with worldly success.

Despite the weighty issues at stake there are plenty of laughs in this play, as the characters make clever digs at each other and themselves. But even while you’re laughing, you can’t help noticing that suspicion, resentment, insecurity, and self-loathing seem to form the consistent emotional backdrop to this contemporary liberal drama of personal choice.

Olga Makeeva, Andrea Swifte and Jane Montgomery Griffiths in Good People
I was recently reminded of this play and its message while thinking about a very different approach to the question of how to assess or give meaning to our lives and the way they unfold. In his theory of understanding, twentieth-century German philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer gives a lot of emphasis to the notion of “play.” As he describes it, playing involves abandoning any strong sense of personal choice or control, since play “fulfills its ‘purpose’ only if the player loses himself in the play.”

‘Purpose’ is placed in inverted commas here, because for Gadamer, playing is a purposeless or non-intentional kind of activity. It is an activity, but one that shades into passivity: “all playing is a being-played. The attraction or fascination that a game exerts consists precisely in the fact that the play tends to master the players.” This carries a risk which is also a lure: we may become so engrossed in the game that our identity is transformed. Such transformation is not a matter of personal choice or responsibility, since the action or agency of play is located not “in the player, but in the game itself; the game is what holds the player in its spell, draws him into play, and keeps him there.”

For Gadamer, human play finds its “genuine completion” as art. In engaging with an artwork, or allowing it to play upon us, we experience a lucid form of play, a bit like lucid dreaming. We know we’re playing, but we also continue to play, or be played.

What if we were to think (lucidly) of our lives, or episodes in our lives, as games or artworks, in Gadamer’s sense, rather than the rational, inevitable working out of personal choices for which we must bear responsibility? Particularly when things go wrong, either for us or for people who are connected to us, we tend to think or feel that this is a product of choices we made earlier and could or should have made differently. This way of seeing things seems to give us the power to act differently in the future, but it can also lead to a powerful sense of self-recrimination. We can add a lot of intensity to our suffering with these kinds of thoughts.

Mightn’t it be kinder, and closer to experience, to suppose that our lives are shaped not by isolated personal choices, nor by impersonal social systems, but by the games that attract and fascinate us, the different forms of play in which we lose ourselves and are transformed, for better or worse?

Most games are social; you can’t play on your own. That’s why you can’t control or take complete responsibility for the outcome of a game – responsibility is shared. And it is the game, rather than the players, that determines the possibilities of play. On this way of seeing things, if we really desire change, we need to find or create space for a new game to play (or to play us), rather than letting obsessive concern with personal choices keep us blindly involved in the one that’s currently got us in its grip.

As my little niece Scarlett often says to me, with the insistent wisdom of a two-year old, “Let’s play!”

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